FRANKFORT, Ky. – Even with the turmoil of COVID-19, minority students in Kentucky achieved steady gains in college degrees and credentials last year, and overall, the state remains on pace to meet its educational attainment goals in 2030.
The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) released those findings – among many others – as part of its annual progress report on colleges and universities in the commonwealth. It shows that, despite unprecedented disruptions during the spring 2020 semester, higher education continued to make important headway on key metrics in the 2019-20 academic year.
According to the data, some of the biggest gains occurred in degree production among underrepresented minority (URM) students. Compared to the previous year, URM bachelor’s degrees rose 4.8% at public universities in 2019-20. Credentials awarded to URM students also increased 7.1% at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS).
Overall, URM students earned 2,707 bachelor’s degrees and 4,679 associate degrees or credentials at public institutions last year, firmly beating strategic goals for the period.
CPE President Aaron Thompson said the numbers show impressive progress toward closing education gaps for one of the groups hit hardest by COVID-19. However, he cautioned that many of the pandemic’s most troubling disparities took hold during the current academic year, and he encouraged campus leaders to remain vigilant.
“The efforts of our campuses and students over the past year have been nothing short of heroic, and today’s report provides many reasons for optimism,” Thompson said. “I want to applaud all of our education leaders for their persistence and hard work. At the same time, let’s not forget that the effects of COVID-19 will linger for years to come, and our state is depending on us to maintain our momentum.”
The report shows positive trends in most of the focus areas that CPE targeted in its 2016-2021 strategic agenda, called “Stronger by Degrees.” The five-year plan established CPE’s 60×30 goal, an ambitious effort to raise the percentage of working-age Kentuckians with a high-quality postsecondary degree or certificate to 60 percent by the year 2030.
According to the latest data, Kentucky remains ahead of schedule. More than 49% of Kentucky adults now have a postsecondary credential, up from 43.6% in 2015. In all, bachelor’s degrees awarded by public universities increased 0.7% to 19,147 in 2019-20. KCTCS conferred 9,966 associate degrees, a 1% increase, and short-term certificates jumped 8.4% to 27,347.
Degrees and credentials awarded to low-income students climbed 5.5% at KCTCS and 0.5% at public universities compared to the previous year. Also, degrees and credentials in STEM+H fields rose 4.8% at KCTCS. While STEM+H degrees declined slightly at public universities, they remained ahead of strategic goals.
In addition to degree production, graduation rates continued to rise at public institutions in 2019-20. The six-year graduation rate at public universities reached 56.4%, up from 55% the year prior. KCTCS also increased its three-year graduation rate to 36.3%, compared to 33.9% a year ago, exceeding its strategic target. Graduation rates for both low-income and URM students improved at all levels.
Likewise, first-year to second-year retention rates improved at every public university. Regarding the overall rate for Kentucky public universities, retention rose 2.5 percentage points over the previous year to 80.7%. The rate for URM students increased 6.5 percentage points, while retention among low-income students climbed 4.4 percentage points.
At KCTCS, the overall retention rate rose to 57.1%, an increase of 1.6 percentage points over the previous year. Retention there increased 1.4 percentage points among URM students and 1.3 percentage points among low-income students.
Despite the gains, Kentucky still faces some long-term challenges. The in-state college-going rate, for instance, has fallen from 54% in 2015 to 50.5% last year – a sign that college is less accessible for Kentucky families. Also, fewer adult learners are returning to school, complicating the path toward CPE’s 60×30 goal.
Lee Nimocks, CPE vice president for strategy and chief of staff, said the results from today’s report will help inform the planning process for CPE’s next five-year strategic agenda. Officials plan to complete the new agenda by spring 2021, including updates to the performance metrics.
“It’s clear this process is driving substantial progress all across the state,” Nimocks said. “We now have four years of comprehensive data to build on, and that will help us refine our objectives and focus in on Kentucky’s most critical needs. We look forward to working with our campus partners and stakeholders as we move forward throughout the year.”
The report is available at http://cpe.ky.gov/data/publications.html.