A building on WSU Tech’s campus in northeast Wichita. Through the Kansas Promise Act, the school has offered community college scholarships to around 150 students. (Matt Hennie/The Beacon)
A building on WSU Tech’s campus in northeast Wichita. Through the Kansas Promise Act, the school has offered community college scholarships to around 150 students. (Matt Hennie/The Beacon)

When Melissa Farrar enrolled in WSU Tech’s nursing program, she paid for her first semester out of pocket. Then she heard other students talk about the Kansas Promise Scholarship, which offers free community or technical college to students pursuing degrees in high-demand fields. Through this scholarship, Farrar’s past two semesters have been paid in full.

“Without having a job, only having one income, and five kids to depend on me, it was very helpful to have a little extra money to go towards school that I don’t have to later pay,” Farrar said. “It felt good to have that.”

The Kansas Promise Scholarship Act, authorized last year by the Kansas Legislature, is a last-dollar scholarship that helps fill the gap for students who otherwise wouldn’t have their full tuition covered by other forms of financial aid, said Lacey Ledwich, senior director of financial aid at WSU Tech.

While statewide data from the spring semester is not yet available, in the fall 2021 semester, 663 students received a scholarship award. WSU Tech disbursed a combined $180,901 to 78 students — the largest number of any technical college in the state. The most popular program was practical nursing, with 51 recipients.

Combined with numbers from the spring and summer semesters, about 150 students at WSU Tech have received Kansas Promise Scholarships so far, and the school has disbursed more than $500,000 in scholarship money, Ledwich said. 

In the fall 2021 semester, 71 students at Butler Community College in El Dorado received financial aid through the Kansas Promise Scholarship — the second-highest number of any community college in the state. Like WSU Tech, Butler’s nursing program saw the highest number of applicants, with 22 students receiving the scholarship. 

To date, Butler Community College has disbursed the Kansas Promise Scholarship to 142 students and awarded nearly $322,000 in scholarship money.

Who can benefit from community college scholarships

The Kansas Promise Scholarship has been especially popular with students like Farrar who are enrolled in the licensed practical nursing program, Ledwich said. Costs for the program are high, and many enrolled are single mothers. 

“Any type of funding that they can get is a huge success for them,” Ledwich said. “Especially if they can get it and not have to borrow a student loan.” 

Ledwich added that some students still aren’t aware the program exists and may feel overwhelmed by the numerous scholarship opportunities out there. And even if a student learns about the program, fully understanding its eligibility requirements can be a challenge.

When the Kansas Promise Scholarship was introduced, students were ineligible for the program if they were more than a year removed from high school graduation but weren’t yet 21 years old. An education bill signed by Gov. Laura Kelly in May closes this eligibility “donut hole,” Ledwich said. 

The Kansas Promise Scholarship benefits students from a variety of backgrounds, said Michelle Ponce, admissions counselor at Butler Community College. It serves as a particularly useful resource for students who are missed by other forms of financial aid. 

“People feel like they can’t progress in their career, change their career, or make a better life for them and their families,” Ponce said. “This allows them to do that.” 

Compared to other forms of financial aid, the Kansas Promise Scholarship sets more generous income caps, with a cap of $100,000 for a family of two and $150,000 for a family of three. This can be useful for students who narrowly miss qualifying for federal Pell grants, Ponce added.

Students who previously completed an associate’s or bachelor’s degree may be ineligible for other scholarships because of these degrees, Ponce said. But if they’re looking for a career change in a high-demand field, they may qualify for a Kansas Promise Scholarship. 

Erin Chambers returned to school at Butler Community College because she wanted to shift her career path from agricultural business to nursing. As a nontraditional student with a family to care for and a mortgage to pay, Chambers said she initially hesitated to take on additional debt. Receiving the Kansas Promise Scholarship helped because she received all of her financial aid through one scholarship and didn’t need to apply for multiple smaller ones, she said. 

“Now I can go to school to do something I want to do, that I’m passionate about,” Chambers said. “And all the while, I’m not worried about how I’m going to pay for this class or how I’m going to pay for these books.” 

The fields currently covered by the scholarship include information technology and security, mental and physical health care, advanced manufacturing and building trades and early childhood education and development. 

When the program began, colleges were limited to selecting only one additional eligible program beyond those specified in the law. With the updated requirements, colleges can expand their choice to include an entire field of study based on local demand — provided this field is approved by the Kansas Board of Regents. 

Butler Community College chose fire science as its additional program during the scholarship’s first year. In the future, the school plans on expanding fire science into a field, said Heather Ward, Butler’s director of financial aid. 

Changes to the Kansas Promise Scholarship 

In addition to the new field of study and the increased age range, this year’s legislation introduced other changes to the Kansas Promise Scholarship. Some relate to new processing methods, such as moving the application from a paper form to an online application. Others open the scholarship to students who may not have originally considered it.  

Previously, scholarship recipients were required to complete their program within 30 months, but this has been expanded to 36 months. Ponce recently spoke with a single mother interested in enrolling in Butler Community College’s cybersecurity program. 

“She only feels comfortable doing six hours each semester,” Ponce said. 

The 36-hour extension allows the student to complete her degree on time while also working and raising her child. “That’s huge,” Ponce added. 

The bill also raised the scholarship’s credit hour cap from 65 hours to 68 hours and introduced a $20,000 lifetime limit on the amount of money an individual can receive from the scholarship. 

The application for the updated Kansas Promise Scholarship for the fall 2022 semester opens on July 1. Ward hopes these changes lead to more applicants and an increase in students who are able to enroll in college. 

“This puts students into the fields that Kansas needs,” Ward said. “And when they enter the workforce, Kansas grows stronger and our region grows stronger as well.”

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Gretchen Lenth is The Wichita Beacon’s data intern through the Dow Jones News Fund. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenLenth.