The Donnelly College Community Event Center is pictured May 24 in Kansas City, Kansas. About 3.5% of Donnelly's approximately 400 students used the Kansas Promise Scholarship during the last school year.
The Donnelly College Community Event Center is pictured May 24 in Kansas City, Kansas. About 3.5% of Donnelly's approximately 400 students used the Kansas Promise Scholarship during the last school year. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

ShanTisha Porter didn’t have many options when she decided to return to school to become a licensed practical nurse. 

Porter is a mother of four who holds an associate degree and is a certified nursing assistant. She said she wanted to gain a new credential because there wasn’t enough demand for her current certification as an occupational therapy assistant. 

But after the first year of her LPN program at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, she’d exhausted some sources of financial aid and wasn’t eligible for others.

“My financial aid was pretty much used up,” Porter said. “I was working back and forth with Donnelly trying to figure out a way to be able to continue school and afford it.”

An adviser told her she would be a good candidate for the newly established Kansas Promise Scholarship

“I was awarded that last August, and it helped out tremendously because it got me through the last couple semesters of the program,” she said. 

Porter recently graduated and now only needs to pass her final licensing exam. 

The Kansas Promise Scholarship, which went into effect in July, provides free community college for students like Porter who want to enter specific high-demand career areas: information technology and security; mental and physical health care; advanced manufacturing and building trades; or early childhood education and development.

After Gov. Laura Kelly signed an education bill into law May 16, the program will be expanded to include additional career areas and age groups

For students whose educational costs aren’t already covered by another grant or scholarship, Kansas Promise pays for any remaining tuition, fees, books or supplies. In return, students pledge to live and work in Kansas for at least two years after they graduate or pay the money back. 

After the new program became available in July, community colleges had to scramble to advertise the scholarship and put into place an unfamiliar application process. 

But near the end of the scholarship’s first year of existence, Mary Dorr, director of student financial aid at Kansas City Kansas Community College, said it’s already helped fill the gaps for students who made too much money to qualify for Pell Grants and are hesitant to go into student loan debt. 

“Those are the only two options we’ve always had,” Dorr said. “But now we have this third option, if they’re in the right program. And many of them, like, kind of a light bulb goes off. ‘Oh, yeah, I can do this.’” 

How metro-area colleges have used the Kansas Promise Scholarship

As state officials and community college groups called the Kansas Promise Act an initial success, a Kansas City-area college topped the list of colleges with high fall semester participation. Johnson County Community College, the largest two-year school in Kansas, recorded 87 successful applicants. 

Spring semester statistics aren’t yet available statewide, but Molly Baumgardner, communications coordinator at JCCC, said more than 200 students have used the scholarship since it became available in July and more are applying for the summer and fall semesters.  

At the smaller Kansas City Kansas Community College, 25 total students used the program throughout the fall and spring semesters, Dorr said. 

Donnelly College and MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe were both listed in state data as having fewer than five participants during the fall semester. 

Carol Best, public relations manager at MidAmerica Nazarene, said only one student from the university participated during either semester. 

At Donnelly, which has an enrollment of close to 400, about 3.5% of all students used the scholarship during the past two semesters, said Anali Hernandez Cruz, a financial aid counselor at the college.  

Who the Promise Scholarship benefits

The Promise Scholarship is meant for Kansas residents, and a recent state law change made age requirements more flexible but also limited the program to U.S. citizens. 

The law change will also mean that each college can choose an additional eligible field — which could include multiple programs — from the following list: 

  • agriculture;
  • food and natural resources;
  • education and training;
  • law, public safety, corrections and security;
  • distribution and logistics. 

The program has income caps, but they’re relatively high compared to some other need-based programs, starting at $100,000 for a family of two. 

Dorr said the Kansas Promise program has been particularly beneficial for students who slightly exceed the income caps for federal Pell Grants, and students who want to attend full-time but previously couldn’t afford it. 

The college won’t know whether the scholarship has helped improve completion rates or allowed students to finish degrees faster until a few more semesters have passed, Dorr said. 

She said students in health care programs such as nursing and physical therapy were particularly interested in the scholarship. 

“Those students, they tend to work, have families, some of them are adults that have that income that falls just off the Pell charts,” Dorr said. 

Baumgardner said the most popular programs at JCCC were health care programs, such as nursing and dental hygiene and information technology programs, including cybersecurity. 

Challenges and future prospects for the scholarship

Dorr said she expects understanding of the program to improve as word of the scholarship spreads and the college improves its advertising. 

Initially, she said, not all students understood which programs were eligible or that they wouldn’t receive funds if a Pell Grant already covered the entire cost of their education. 

Dorr said the college can use its knowledge of which programs were popular to improve future advertising. 

KCKCC is also thinking about what career area to add to the scholarship program.

Dorr said the college hasn’t made a decision yet. But she noted the college has ties with a Kansas State University education program and that corrections jobs are available in nearby Leavenworth County. 

Even for those in eligible programs, the requirement that students remain in Kansas has been a sticking point for some students, Dorr said. In the Kansas City metro area, students who plan to remain in Kansas may want to keep the option of crossing the state line for jobs. 

But Dorr said the prospect of free community college swayed some students who were initially concerned. 

“I think some of them came around next semester saying, ‘Oh, I can stay in Kansas for two more years,’” she said. 

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.