The campus of Johnson County Community College is pictured Sept. 16 in Overland Park. JCCC offers about 50 programs that are eligible for the Kansas Promise Scholarship. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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College students in Kansas now have access to a new scholarship designed to help keep their talents in the state after they graduate.

The state is putting $10 million annually toward helping students who enter certain high-demand fields pay for a community college education. Scholarship recipients are required to work in Kansas for two years after they complete their education.

Heather Morgan, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community College Trustees, said the program is aimed at students who may not qualify for other types of financial aid. 

“It’s sort of taking care of a gap in the financial aid system to help everyday Kansans ensure that they can afford a community college education,” Morgan said. 

Morgan worked with legislators to draft the bill, which passed the Kansas Senate unanimously and passed the Kansas House 118-4. Gov. Laura Kelly signed it into law April 23. 

Thirty-three higher education institutions in Kansas are included in the program — 19 community colleges, seven technical colleges and seven private, nonprofit postsecondary institutions. 

“The goal of the scholarship program is to help provide Kansas businesses the workforce they desperately need, and to help Kansans stay in Kansas,” Morgan said. 

How the Kansas Promise Scholarship works 

The Kansas Promise Scholarship Act went into effect July 1. After other types of aid are applied, the program pays the entire remaining cost of tuition, fees and books. 

In the Kansas City area, Johnson County Community College, Kansas City Kansas Community College, MidAmerica Nazarene University and Donnelly College are included on a list of schools with approved programs on the Kansas Board of Regents website.

At JCCC, tuition and fees per credit hour cost $94 for county residents and $112 for other Kansas residents. That means a normal full-time course load of 12-18 hours could cost from $1,128 to $2,016, not counting materials or special course fees.

Similarly, KCKCC charges $104 per credit hour for Wyandotte County residents and $110 for other Kansans. That comes to a range of $1,248 to $1,980 for 12-18 credit hours, not counting materials or special course fees. 

If you’re spending the money to train people that are leaving the state of Kansas, then while it is good for the students, you have to ask, ‘Is it beneficial for the state as a whole?’

Scott smathers, Kansas board of regents vice president of workforce development

Because some students may get other scholarships, the state won’t have to pay the full tuition for each student. Morgan said the average award could range from $1,000 to $1,500. 

Scholarship recipients must live and work in Kansas after they graduate. If they go on to get a higher degree at another institution, the two-year work requirement would begin after they complete their four-year degree. 

Republican Kansas Sen. Molly Baumgardner, one of the main legislators who pushed for the program, said she hopes it will make staying in school easier for recent high school graduates and older students.

“We see it all the time at the community college level where they’ll take one or two courses, and then we won’t see them for one or two semesters because they’re working and trying to save up money to take a couple more courses,” Baumgardner said. “Life gets in the way.” 

Which Kansas community college students are eligible for the Promise Scholarship

To be eligible for the scholarship, students must be studying one of four areas: information technology and security; mental and physical health care; advanced manufacturing and building trades; or early childhood education and development. 

In addition, each participating school can choose one other area of study to include in the scholarship. 

In the Kansas City area, Johnson County Community College lists more than 50 programs eligible for the scholarship, while Kansas City Kansas Community College lists more than 25.

Those eligible must typically have graduated from a Kansas high school or an equivalent in the past year or be at least 21 and a Kansas resident for at least the past three years. There are exceptions for children of military members.

Christal Williams, director of financial aid for JCCC, encouraged families not to assume they are ineligible.

“I think we have many that may not be applying because they feel like they won’t qualify, because in the past, they didn’t qualify for federal aid. And that’s not the case,” she said. 

Income caps for the program are $100,000 for a household of two and $150,000 for a household of three. For households larger than three, add $4,800 for each additional family member. Those who make even more money could be eligible if there is leftover funding. 

To apply, students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a requirement that is partially meant to help them to discover other forms of aid such as federal Pell Grants, Baumgardner said. 

She said that’s what an early applicant discovered. “Had we not had that scholarship … they would have never filled out FAFSA.”

The scholarship does not require that students study full-time, though they need to enroll in at least six hours per semester. 

Helping Kansas businesses fill jobs

While the program requirements were designed mainly to meet the workforce needs of businesses in Kansas, those who developed the program also considered the issue of “brain drain” — when students educated in Kansas move away after graduation. 

“I think it was important from a perspective of justifying how you’re spending the money,” said Scott Smathers, Kansas Board of Regents vice president of workforce development. “Because if you’re spending the money to train people that are leaving the state of Kansas, then while it is good for the students, you have to ask, ‘Is it beneficial for the state as a whole?'”

Just over half of students who graduated from the Kansas higher education system during the 2018 academic year were employed in the state two years later, according to Kansas Higher Education Statistics from the state’s Board of Regents. The percentages were slightly higher for 2016 and 2017 graduates. 

Requiring students to live and work in Kansas for two years after they graduate will help sustain the state’s workforce, Smathers said. 

“Once a student has been here for two years, the likelihood that they will have put down roots and become ingrained in their community is much higher,” Morgan said. 

Students who graduate from two-year institutions are traditionally more likely to stay in Kansas, Morgan said. For example, about 63% of students who earned a certificate in Kansas in 2018 were employed in Kansas two years later, compared to about 48% of those who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2018. 

The program is also designed to help Kansas employers fill in-demand jobs. 

For example, a 2019 survey from the Kansas Department of Labor found registered nurses and nursing assistants were among the top three professions with the most vacancies, more than 1,500 each. About 75% of employers in health care fields said vacancies were difficult to fill. 

Smathers, with the Kansas Board of Regents, said the scholarship program can also help people who have lost jobs. “I think it will encourage them to potentially come back into the higher ed area to get the expertise so they could get another job.” 

The outlook for the Kansas Promise Scholarship 

Smathers said the program has already seen significant interest among students. 

At Johnson County Community College, Williams estimated about 120 students had received scholarship offers as of Sept. 14 and about 90 had accepted. She expects to see more growth as the college continues to advertise the program. 

When developing the program, legislators looked at successful examples from other states, such as Tennessee.

In the first year of the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, the percent of high school graduates who enrolled in higher education jumped nearly 6 percentage points. It has since dipped slightly but remains above prescholarship levels, according to a 2021 report from Tennessee’s Office of Research and Education Accountability. 

The number of students attending community colleges also increased.

The Tennessee program is offered to students regardless of income, grades or subject matter of their degree, but it has strict requirements to maintain eligibility, such as going to school full time, fulfilling service hours and attending mentoring meetings. It does not cover books and supplies.

A 2020 report from the Office of Research suggested those were barriers to participation that could be adjusted. 

In Kansas, legislators have already avoided some of those pitfalls and are planning to tweak the program to improve clarity.

One issue they are working to address is when students work in the Kansas City metro area and end up getting transferred across the state line within their company. 

“We want all the groups that are invested in this to look at what’s in the legislation and make recommendations to make it even better, to make it more clear,” Baumgardner said.

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.

Sophia Belshe is a reporting intern for The Kansas City Beacon. She is from Overland Park, Kansas, and a rising senior at the University of Kansas.