Born to an illiterate father who signed his name with an “X” and a mother with an eighth-grade education, Aaron Thompson shared with Frankfort High students Wednesday his personal story about how he started from humble beginnings to become the state’s higher education leader.

“I wasn’t the smartest kid in school,” he said, spilling the secret to his success. “But I knew how to work hard and show up every day.”

The son of a coal miner, Thompson — a former interim president of Kentucky State University — currently serves president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) and visited with FHS juniors and seniors as part of his higher education listening tour.

Frankfort was the fifth of six stops on the tour that has taken Thompson across the state to Manchester, Murray State, Owensboro, Western Kentucky University and KSU, which hosted a community session Tuesday evening.

In Wednesday morning’s more intimate setting, Thompson rejected the conventional approach of standing behind a podium on stage under the bright lights, opting to stand among the students, teachers and parents. He opened by asking them to define higher education, listened patiently to their answers, which included getting a four-year or two-year degree, and then dropped a bombshell.

“Anything beyond high school is higher education. College is for everybody — a four-year degree may not be for everybody,” he explained, adding that many choose to attend trade schools or obtain associate’s degrees or certificates, which are all types of higher education.

Next, he attempted to dispel myths about college, telling the audience the prices listed on university websites are never what they end up paying out-of-pocket.

“It really doesn’t cost that much. You can get discounts, grants, scholarships,” Thompson said. “Many or not most of you will need to borrow money.”

While college is a great investment, he warned students that they must be dedicated to getting their degree. If not, they could find themselves saddled with debt.

As the session drew on, the students became more engaged and opened up to the CPE president. One relayed his fear of not being able to complete college, giving Thompson an opening to debunk another myth.

“Almost everybody is afraid they won’t make it through,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. Just know you have to work hard and not give up.”

One way Frankfort High is helping prepare students for the rigors of college life is through GEAR UP, a federally funded grant program that readies teens academically, financially and socially for college success. Though the seven-year program launched just last year, FHS is already performing 10 percentage points higher (78.8%) than the state average (68.8%) in college-readiness.

When polled about what could help them better prepare for college life, one student pointedly said a high school class teaching proper studying techniques and time management would be beneficial.

“Yes,” Thompson exclaimed. “That’s what we are hearing across the country but especially in Kentucky.”

In fact, that is one of the lofty goals he has built his administration around. In 2013, only 45% of the state’s residents (age 25-64) were highly educated — meaning they had a postsecondary certificate or higher. By 2030, Thompson hopes to improve that number to 60%.

“I know we can do it,” he said. “I am proof that it can be done.”

The final stop in the first leg of Thompson’s listening tour is scheduled for Aug. 28-29 at Northern Kentucky University, but new dates will be added. Visit the CPE website for more information.

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