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In Conversation With ... Ryan Quarles

Ryan Quarles

Kentucky School Advocate
January 2024

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Ryan Quarles became the president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) on Jan. 1. He now oversees a community college system that employs 4,000 people, has more than 90,000 students and is the largest degree-awarding entity in Kentucky. Quarles credits his mother for helping inspire his love of learning. She was a public school teacher before she earned her doctorate and became a college professor.

Q. You turned 40 this fall, and you’ve already held multiple high-profile roles: legislator, agriculture commissioner and gubernatorial candidate. You’ve also managed to earn seven college degrees, including a doctorate. Now you are taking on a new role as president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS). Why did you want to become KCTCS president?

My mother’s career was in teaching. She was a professor of nursing at Kentucky State University. Then, when I was in college, I was a college representative on the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE), representing all college students in Kentucky. That led to my interest in higher education. So, for those who know me well, it was no surprise when I applied for the KCTCS presidency because I’ve always planned on working in higher education. A motivation beyond my mother is the fact that we have got to focus on getting our workforce participation rate up in Kentucky, which includes promoting the skilled trades and getting more Kentuckians educated. Most of my childhood was spent working on the farm and in our shop fixing engines so I have a tremendous respect for blue collar jobs. I believe KCTCS is the most impactful higher education entity in the state and that it should be a primary tool in the toolbox to address our workforce issues in Kentucky.

Q. How will your experience as a college representative on the CPE impact how you approach your new job?

That experience reminds me of the commitment we must have to make higher education affordable and accessible to every Kentuckian. That is squarely in the mission of KCTCS. I’m also a big believer in having a one Kentucky approach for higher education. KCTCS had a special role and mission as it was defined by House Bill 1 in 1997, that we should be a complement, not a competitor, to the other higher education entities in Kentucky. So, I believe that we have a special technical role, but we also have a tremendous mission of general education requirements and transferring to finish out a baccalaureate degree.

Q. Some say that instead of P-12, we should talk about P-16. Do you believe every high school graduate should pursue some sort of postsecondary education?

Yes. I believe that Kentuckians should be encouraged to reach their potential, whether that be as a welder, owning their own HVAC company or attaining a professional degree. And the current workforce needs in Kentucky are very clear. We need more Kentuckians with skilled backgrounds, meaning plumbers, electricians, battery plant technicians, supply chain management. One theme I talked about as agriculture commissioner carries over into this new position – we need to have a dignity of work conversation in our Commonwealth and remind our citizens, especially young Kentuckians who are making career choices, that we respect those professions where you come home with dirt on your boots or grease on your elbows. We need to treat those professions as just as important as white-collar professions. And guess what? The private market right now is rewarding those who possess these trade skills with starting salaries of $70,000 to sometimes $100,000.

Q. As you point out, you can make a great living and have a great profession in skilled trades. So, what’s keeping us from getting people trained?

Ryan Quarles, who was then agriculture commissioner, visits with FFA students at Breathitt County Schools in October.


I think it's a mindset. We need to, as a society, encourage Kentuckians to choose a career that they love. If that means a student develops a special interest in working with their hands, we should encourage that at a very young age and expose them to the career opportunities our community colleges offer. We also need to remind employers that if they are looking for, as example, nurses to address the nursing shortage, you need to partner with us not only to guide students toward nursing but also to get people motivated to choose nursing as a career at a younger age. Many students make those initial career pathway decisions in middle school or high school.

Q. Do you expect KCTCS to be more involved with our K-12 school systems and the school districts?

Absolutely. I plan on spending a lot of time listening and learning but also realize that we have tremendous potential in cooperation with K-12 in developing student pipelines toward KCTCS career opportunities.

Q. Many school districts partner with KCTCS schools on dual credit classes that allow students to receive college credit while still in high school. Is this system working and, if not, what should be changed?

Well, I haven’t even started my job yet, but let me put it this way. Anytime we can offer a class that puts a Kentuckian a step closer toward reaching their dreams, that’s a success. We also need to make sure that we are reminding policy makers that KCTCS provides value and a step-ahead approach. For one third of our enrollees who participate in dual credit, they may start their higher education pathway with us, but may graduate from a different school. We need to remind people that we already provide value that benefits other higher education entities. But we’re proud to provide the dual credit opportunities as well.

Q. You’re taking over KCTCS as the system is under scrutiny. The CPE recently released a report after the legislature asked it to study several issues including whether KCTCS should focus on technical education and return general education classes to the regional universities. The legislature may take up this issue this session. What are your thoughts on splitting CTE and general education?

In my 13 years in public office, along with traveling to every single county six times over as ag commissioner, I have met Kentuckians who have gone on to achieve their personal dreams and who started in the community technical college because of the general ed opportunities and the ability to transfer. I strongly believe we should keep the gen ed component and improve transferability among our 16 campuses.

Q. We’re talking in December and, as you have pointed out, you haven’t officially started your job, but you are thinking ahead. Are there changes that you believe should be made to the community college system?

We need to tell our positive story about what’s already being accomplished every day on our campuses. A lot of people might not realize how much we already accomplish and what a strong community presence we have across Kentucky. I also believe that we will lead an effort to be the biggest tool in the toolbox toward addressing workforce development in Kentucky. And in the upcoming legislative session, we will have a lot to juggle, but I will be very active on making sure that KCTCS lives up to its intended potential as being a workforce development problem solver.

Q. Do you have some goals and accomplishments that you hope to have achieved by the end of your first year in office?

With the recently released audit, some changes will have to be made. I hope within the first year that we’ve made corrective actions on all the findings in the audit and that we address internal organizational struggles but also fill out the rest of the cabinet. I think addressing the internal struggles strictly as defined by the audit should be concluded by the end of my first year.

Q. Do you think you'll be traveling as much as you have in your previous jobs?

I will be. We support our 16 colleges in 70 different locations.

Q. What would you say to local school board members regarding ways they can help support the mission of higher education in our state?

First, I’d thank them for their service, which sometimes goes uncelebrated. And, I would say if a school board member has a good idea about how we can get more Kentuckians back to work, let me know. That is my homework assignment for school board members – come up with good ideas and pass them along to us so we can have a one Kentucky approach not just with higher education but with education in general.

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