As she was settling into classes and life as an Eastern Kentucky University student in 2017, Elizabeth Cordle received news that no child wants to hear: a parent diagnosed with cancer. Leaving school and going back home to Floyd County was a no-brainer for Cordle, as she knew she needed to help care for her mother. She eventually earned an associate’s degree from the local community college, but the desire to complete a bachelor’s degree remained.
Cordle, now a finance clerk for the Madison County Fiscal Court, is one of more than 25,000 city and county employees across the Commonwealth now eligible to receive significantly discounted tuition, free undergraduate books, and a locked-in tuition rate for two years in a recent agreement between EKU, the Kentucky League of Cities (KLC) and the Kentucky Association of Counties (KACo).
KLC and KACo are just two out of more than 15 organizations that Eastern has worked with over the past few years to establish educational programs for its employees, said Benton Shirey, director of corporate educational partnerships. He said there are at least 15 more organizations who have expressed interest in having the university help develop its employees.
EKU President Dr. David McFaddin said these types of corporate partnerships affirm the university’s commitment to being the “School of Opportunity” for the region.
“We believe in the power of education in helping people better themselves and their communities,” McFaddin said. “EKU has a long history of providing degrees that focus on practical career areas that empower employees to contribute to workplace objectives immediately.”
Chief of Staff for the City of Somerset Jeffrey Edwards is a prime example of the long history between EKU and students across the Commonwealth who wish to attain a degree that will help them achieve their personal and professional goals.
“Not everyone can take the same path to a degree,” Edwards said. “I finished mine while taking classes online with EKU and working full time as mayor of Monticello, and I’m grateful I had that opportunity.”
Edwards said that Eastern’s willingness to provide an affordable and convenient option to earn a degree is important to building an organizational culture where people feel empowered and valued.
“If we want to build a thriving workforce, we must provide our employees with opportunities to succeed while also honoring and encouraging work-life balance,” Edwards said. “This is the beauty of non-traditional education.”
Non-traditional students have changed the face of education over the past decade. Almost three-quarters of enrolled students are those who have delayed enrolling in university until after age 24, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Most of those non-traditional students are full-time employees. Helping those employees achieve their goals faster and less expensively are a couple of the goals of EKU’s corporate partnership initiative.
EKU works to build educational programs and services that will specifically benefit each organization. Some organizations desire to allow their employees to complete educational requirements in order to earn a degree or certificate while others wish to provide professional development or training in a specific area.
“We do not partner with just companies of one size or type,” Shirey said. “We also work with agencies that have various roles, and we need an approach that serves each one best.”
Shirey points to the KLC/KACo partnership as an example of a unique approach.
“As the supporters of public services, cities and counties have fixed budgets and are limited to what they can afford to pay their employees. Our partnership allows KLC and KACo member cities and counties to offer discounted tuition to their employees for the purpose of retaining current employees and as a recruiting tool to attract new talent.”
Organizations use the opportunity to partner with EKU as a bridge that connects the business with faculty and students: Faculty being the subject matter experts who can provide leadership with the latest research, and students serving as new talent for the business through internship opportunities.
Relationships between the insurance industry and EKU have allowed dozens of students each year to serve in internships, co-ops and other part-time opportunities, according to Dr. Lisa Gardner, Robert B. Morgan Chair of Insurance and director of the RMI Program in the EKU School of Business.
“We have more opportunities than we can possibly fill with current numbers of majors and minors,” she said. “The insurance industry continues to be an outstanding supporter of our program, and we love having that support. It makes every difference for the future of our students.”
Being a School of Opportunity means being creative in offerings and partnerships to find ways to help people reach their dreams.
“A higher education degree can be expensive, and a lot of students work to help pay for or offset that cost,” Cordle said. “This opportunity helps me to be able to make that long-term dream a reality by offering something that not many employers can say they do. A finished degree, on a professional level, would open up a new level of opportunities. On a personal level, a finished degree would give a sense of pride for me and all those who cheered me on. That knowledge and sense of pride is something I would carry for the rest of my life.”