By Dave Adkisson, Kentucky Chamber President and CEO
Kentucky’s progress in higher education has made recent headlines, with two reports tracking developments that make a strong case for optimism. In fact, the reports deliver the most encouraging news we’ve heard in recent years.
Predictably, however, there is still a long way to go before Kentucky reaches the education attainment levels that will create the kind of highly skilled workforce that employers need to ensure sustained economic growth for their companies and the state as a whole.
The first installment of good news came from a report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a well-regarded research organization based in Boulder, Colo. NCHEMS took a look at Kentucky’s performance since the legislature passed sweeping postsecondary reforms in 1997.
- Kentucky was first in the nation in improving the college attainment rate (associate degrees and higher) of working-aged adults 25 to 64 years old between 2000 and 2009.
- Kentucky has moved more positions in the positive direction than any other state in the percentage of college-degree holders among younger adults.
- The six-year graduation rate at Kentucky’s four-year public and private institutions improved at the largest percentage rate of any state.
- The percentage change in the number of undergraduate credentials awarded per 1,000 adults with no college degree was the largest in the nation.
The release of the Kentucky Chamber’s own postsecondary progress report came soon after the NCHEMS numbers were shared with policy leaders in Frankfort. Our update is the third one issued since our Task Force on Postsecondary Education conducted an assessment of progress that has been made since the 1997 reforms. Several key points that emerged:
- Kentucky’s national ranking in per capita income has moved from 47th to 44th.
- Kentucky ranked third among the states for percentage growth in personal income from 2009 to 2010. Personal income is defined as that received by all residents from all sources.
- The state has moved up two positions and now ranks 45th nationally in the education attainment of 25- to 64-year-olds.
- Enrollment continued to increase at public and independent postsecondary institutions, growing to 266,462 students in the fall of 2010.
- Kentucky’s public and private institutions conferred a record number of degrees and credentials during the 2010-2011 academic year – 62,700, according to the Council on Postsecondary Education’s preliminary report.
- Affordability continues to be a challenge, with tuition increasing again at all public institutions.
So there has been progress, some of it moderate, some more dramatic. But it is clear that much work remains to be done. Kentucky’s 45th national ranking in education attainment provides pointed evidence of the challenges, especially when it is considered in the context of unemployment levels based on education attainment. According to a breakdown of national August 2011 unemployment numbers:
- Overall unemployment: 9.1%
- High school diploma: 9.6%
- Some college: 8.2%
- Bachelor’s or more: 4.3%
And the relationship between education and employment makes it critical to build stronger connections between higher education and economic development. As the NCHEMS report noted:
“In the coming decade, higher education leaders and policymakers must work even harder to more clearly define postsecondary education’s role in community and economic development, ensure greater success in the transformation of research into high-skill job creation, and build more effective relationships between the postsecondary education enterprise and the entities charged with workforce and economic development.”