FRANKFORT – About quarter-century ago, right when the Kentucky Education Reform Act was passed, the commonwealth had nowhere to go but up when it came to the education levels of adults 25 and older.
Only two-thirds had graduated from high school, and less than a sixth had earned a bachelor’s degree. No state had a lower combined percentage.
We’re not where we want to be, but times have certainly improved. According to the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics, we’re now at the national average in the percentage of working-age adults with a high school degree – and another report shows our current graduation rate ranks among the top 10 states, indicating an even brighter future.
Increasing the number of working-age adults with a college education is proving to be more of a challenge, however. While we exceed the national average when measuring those having a two-year associate’s degree, there is still a considerable lag in the percentage having a four-year degree. Nationally, the rate is one-third, but it’s one-fourth here in the commonwealth.
Closing that gap would make a tremendous difference. Last fall, the Gatton College estimated that state revenues alone would rise by $900 million if we just met the national average in postsecondary education. Nearly half of the total would be from increased wages and most of the rest would come from expected savings within Medicaid and such other assistance programs as food stamps.
Several years ago, state officials decided that it was time to take a much more in-depth look at just how many high school students go on to college – and succeed.
Last month, the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics gave its latest annual reports on the progress we’re making in these two areas.
It found that nearly 44,000 seniors graduated in 2014 and just a little more than 60 percent went on to some form of higher education in the fall, with nearly all attending full-time. Compared to their counterparts from several years earlier, they were much more college and career ready.
Nonetheless, not many were destined to earn at least 30 hours of college credit, which is considered a full course load over a year. The center’s second study, which focused on the Class of 2013’s success as college freshmen, found that less than 20 percent earned that much credit.
The center’s studies also showed there is a growing divide between men and women working on a postsecondary degree. Nearly 70 percent of females graduating high school in 2014 went on to college, versus 52 percent of male graduates.
During this year’s legislative session, I was proud the House led the way in trying to improve all of these numbers. Our chief focus was passing the new Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program, which I sponsored to help graduating high school seniors get their two-year college degree tuition-free. While the legislation establishing this was unfortunately vetoed, there is funding in the budget’s second year, and I will work to make sure we have a strong program going forward.
The House also fought to limit budget cuts to higher education and to preserve more lottery funds for financial aid as part of what is called the “Powerball Promise.” On the positive side, there is more money for high school students enrolled in college courses, which is known as dual credit, and for coal-county scholarships, which I think have done a great job when it comes to helping our local students finish their bachelor’s degree close to home.
We have come a long way over the past quarter-century, but we risk losing these gains if we don’t better fund our colleges and universities. We can’t expect to compete with other states, much less other countries, if we don’t make this more of a priority investment. It’s a lesson we better learn – and quickly.
If you would like to let me know your thoughts on this issue, or any other, you can email me at [email protected]
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Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.