Aaron Thompson

President, Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Aaron Thompson's Journey from Childhood Poverty to Kentucky's SHEEO

“"Too many of our students see college as a foreign place that wasn't designed for them. They hear about it, they went to many schools that they felt disenfranchised in. College just becomes a bigger foreign place to feel disenfranchised in. We need students to feel empowered to maneuver, to self-advocate and put themselves in an environment that stretches that their potential. To overcome those systemic challenges, institutions and systems need to focus dollars and resources on completion and creating wrap-around services and supports that provides each student with the maximum likelihood of success during the difficult journey to completion.””

Policy Power Plays

  • Build a stronger pipeline from higher education to career that enables students to see a career at the end of the education system.
  • Use financial incentives to focus institutions on college completion and student success.
  • Value alternative models of vocational education as a way to improve the long-term sustainability of higher education.

 Education offered Aaron Thompson a way out of poverty. Raised in an impoverished, nine-children household by an illiterate coal miner and sharecropper, Aaron was the first in his family to graduate from high school and then college. While the Thompson family lacked financial wealth, they were resourceful and always found a way forward to encourage Aaron to chase his dream.

“I realized that even though my parents talked about education, I understood clearly they did not know about college because they had no idea what college meant. They told me education was the path to my success.”

Knowing he wanted to attend college, Aaron actively sought out mentors from successful students and teachers while in high school. Upon arriving at Eastern Kentucky University, Aaron aggressively pursued advising and guidance to help him navigate an environment almost exclusively foreign to him. Likening the pursuit of education to building the plane while flying it, Aaron drew motivation from assisting financially for his own family back home. He later found new inspiration from a sense of responsibility in supporting the next generation. Empowered with a degree and an education that could serve him for life, Aaron set his course for a masters and Ph.D. at the University of Kentucky.

He is currently the president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. He is the first Kentucky native and African-American to hold the position since the Council was formed 21 years ago.

Previously, Aaron served as Interim President of Kentucky State University, and was the Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, where he worked on implementing systems to help students stay on track and obtain a degree.

He examines the realities of higher education to identify the barriers students face, then helps remove them with practical solutions. For instance, at Kentucky State, Aaron saw the impact of remedial classes with no credit and recognized the benefit of a corequisite model, which allows students to work toward college-level credit while clearing remedial requirements. Working to solve this limitation, Aaron wrote a policy for all of Kentucky Public Higher Education that four-year institutions could no longer offer developmental education courses; community and technical colleges could only offer a developmental education course with the goal to navigate a better route to help students become successful.

“The idea that I had a pure direction about where I wanted to go [is not true]; I didn’t and really a lot of people had to provide that for me. I didn’t have the kind of world where people laid out this college and career access process. That’s why I believe in doing that now.”

Aaron does not just “understand” the life-altering impact of completing college: he lived it.