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Postsecondary education in Kentucky

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When the General Assembly overhauled the state’s postsecondary system in 1997, it set some ambitious goals to reach by the year 2020.

Last month, the Council on Postsecondary Education gave us an update  on just how far we have come since then – and how much further we need to go in the next few years to stay on track.

Overall, the big picture is a positive one.  From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of adults 25 to 64 in Kentucky who have at least an associate’s degree went up from 24 percent to a little more than 30 per-cent.  No other state saw a bigger leap.

This news is even better when taking a closer look.  That’s because this gain was driven in part by the younger end of the spectrum, indicating a brighter future, and by the fact that Census figures show most of this progress was accomplished by those who have called Kentucky home for most of their lives.  In other words, we have truly earned it.

Another area where Kentucky leads the nation is the increase in college students getting their bachelor’s degrees within six years of starting.  This figure went up almost nine percent in a decade’s time, which enabled us to move from 44th to 35th among the states in this category.

Our ranking is much higher when looking at the value we get from each postsecondary dollar.  The CPE report shows Kentucky to be 14th best in this area, but the hope is that we can break into the top 10 by mid-decade.

We also do well in the number of degrees awarded in the science, technology, engineering, math and health-related fields.  Nearly a third of the degrees and credentials awarded each year fall in one of these areas, about 17,000 overall, but the plan is to boost that by another 2,000 over the next few years.

While we have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, there remains a lot of work in front of us.  Just two-thirds of high school graduates, for example, meet statewide standards in English, math and science.  CPE’s goal is to raise that to 81 percent by 2014.

The nation’s economic downturn, meanwhile, has unfortunately added another road block for those wanting to go to college.  In 2009-10, more than 63,000 students who qualified for state grants set aside for low-income families did not receive assistance because there was not enough funding.  That’s a dramatic increase from the 38,000 in the year before.

One thing in our favor is the greater use of technology that lets students take classes that might otherwise be unavailable due to lack of time or access.  About 14 percent of college credits are now earned online, which is more than double the total from just five years ago.  If all goes well, nearly a fifth of all credits will be awarded this way within the next few years.

Another positive factor on our side was announced early this month, when Kentucky received $27 million in federal funding to help up to 10,000 seventh graders be better prepared for college; it’s the third grant the state has received over the years.  Nationally, those students who benefit from this program head to a postsecondary school at a higher rate than their peers who didn’t take part.

And that, hopefully, will help us continue building on our growing enrollment, which has begun to slow somewhat.  This fall, there are about 277,000 students taking a class at a postsecondary school in the Commonwealth, which includes public and private institutions alike.  For comparison, that’s only 5,000 less than Fayette County’s total population.

As these figures show, the last decade has essentially matched the lofty goals from 1997, but this last leg to 2020 is the steepest climb yet.  Nevertheless, I am confident we can make it, and from there, we will set the course to do even more in the years that follow.

Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.