FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President Aaron Thompson outlined the agency’s 2023 legislative priorities for higher education at a council meeting on Friday.
The priorities include addressing Kentucky’s teacher and healthcare workforce shortages, strengthening the pathways between K-12 and college, and improving access to postsecondary programs for working-age adults.
“Our priorities are based on meeting Kentuckians’ needs for quality, relevant higher education as well as local industry needs for a highly trained workforce with in-demand skills,” said Thompson. “The programs we are putting into place to meet these needs are based on hundreds of hours of conversations with educators, state officials, students and business leaders as well as quantitative data about our progress toward Kentucky’s educational attainment goals.”
Addressing the teacher workforce shortage
Kentucky, like much of the rest of the country, is facing a critical teacher shortage that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, school safety concerns, the impending retirement of late-career educators, high rates of attrition among newer hires and other factors. According to the Kentucky Department of Education, 72% of the state’s 42,000 full-time teachers are at risk of leaving the profession.
Job postings for teachers have increased every year since 2015, but, on average, only an estimated 83% of those postings are filled. And since 2015, Kentucky has experienced an increase in the number of emergency certifications issued.
“Kentucky’s K-12 system and our colleges and universities must work hand-in-hand on initiatives to recruit, train and retain substantially more high-quality teachers, particularly in critical shortage areas like mathematics and science,” said Thompson. “We also must diversify the teaching force by increasing the number of Black, Hispanic and other minoritized individuals in the profession.”
CPE’s action plan for this area includes creating an Educator Preparation Pathway Pilot through grants, in partnership with public institutions and with a focus on innovative and affordable programs. Pilots may include: a focus on program alignment and transfer between two- and four-year public institutions, flexible programming to include credit for prior learning programs to shorten time to degree, flexible field experiences, alternatives to the teacher licensure assessment, and wrap-around supports for students.
The organization’s proposal also includes creating a Teacher Apprenticeship Pilot through grants managed by CPE and the Kentucky Department of Education in partnership with public postsecondary institutions and local school districts. This pilot would focus on creating a pathway to teaching for those interested in a non-traditional approach to a degree or certification, while removing barriers to the teaching profession.
Addressing the healthcare workforce shortage
Federal funding provided to CPE this year by the General Assembly to improve the talent pipeline for Kentucky’s frontline healthcare workforce led to the creation of the Kentucky Healthcare Workforce Collaborative. The Legislature charged CPE with assembling partnerships between public higher education institutions and healthcare employers to focus on attracting talented students into healthcare professions and retaining students in the healthcare workforce pipeline. Thompson said this had been a highly successful effort so far, but much is left to do.
CPE plans to expand the scope of the Healthcare Workforce Collaborative to include a focus on mental health services and professionals. The State of Mental Health in America 2022 ranks Kentucky 30th in mental health workforce availability, and more than half of the people with diagnosed mental illnesses do not receive treatment. This critical need for more mental health support is also evident on campuses. A national survey of colleges students returning to campus this fall indicates that nearly 70% are experiencing mental health issues related to anxiety or depression.
Easing transitions from K-12 to college
Successfully transitioning high school graduates to college is vital to strengthening the state’s workforce. However, the percentage of Kentucky high school graduates who attend a postsecondary education institution directly after graduation continues to decrease. Over the last five years, this percentage has declined from 59% to 54%, significantly below the national average of 66%. Further, the trend is accelerating, declining three percentage points from 2019 to 2020. Overall, only 54% of Kentucky high school graduates attended any institution nationwide, while only 48% attended an in-state university. If this trend continues, it will further reduce the proportion of college-educated adults in the workforce.
CPE’s work in this area includes the Kentucky Advising Academy, a professional learning series developed for school and district leaders. The academy builds advising capacity through collaboration and coaching with college and university partners to ensure that learning is systematic, strategic and sustainable within our schools, districts and higher education institutions.
The action plan for this area includes strengthening college education readiness through an online platform that incentivizes enrollment through micro-scholarships and other strategies and provides a forum for students to share their achievements and start building relationships with institutions long before decision day. CPE also plans to implement a Kentucky Uniform Online Application System to reduce the complexity of navigating the application process and will continue to push for legislation encouraging more Kentuckians to complete the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to ensure all eligible students receive the maximum state and federal aid.
Increasing access to education for working-age adults
According to a CPE analysis, enrolling working-age adults in college has become more critical than ever. Kentucky’s workforce participation rate is among the lowest in the nation, which stunts the state’s economic development. A key contributor to the state’s low workforce participation rate is the low postsecondary education level of Kentucky’s working-age adults.
An estimated 65-85% of jobs today require training, credentialing or degrees beyond a high school diploma or GED. Yet, in Kentucky, only 49% of working-age adults have earned a degree or credential, according to the Lumina Foundation.
Even as overall postsecondary enrollments stabilize post-pandemic, the decade-long decrease in adult enrollment continues, with undergraduate enrollment among working-age adults falling 50% since 2012-13. Kentucky must develop innovative and effective ways to increase enrollment and completion for adult learners who are struggling to balance the competing demands of work, life, family and school.
CPE’s priorities in this area include expanding flexible academic programming to better meet the needs of busy adults. Campus grants managed by CPE would support the expansion and quality of programming aligned with Kentucky’s workforce demands. Grants also would be available to strengthen credit for prior learning (CPL) programs for military-connected citizens and other students who bring prior learning and job experiences to their college programs. CPL is an important tool to shorten time to degree and reduce college costs but it is not widely available in Kentucky.
Kentucky is closing achievement gaps
Thompson said these priorities will build on the state’s five-year progress toward its goal of 60% of Kentuckians holding a degree or credential by 2030. The goal will move the state closer to the projected national average, making Kentucky more competitive in an economy where most new jobs require a postsecondary credential.
Thompson reported that from 2016-2021 the state’s six-year graduation rate increased by 7.6 percentage points. The graduation rate among underrepresented minorities outpaced the overall increase, rising 9.5 percentage points. Undergraduate degrees at state universities increased 2% over that same period, while degrees awarded to underrepresented minorities rose by 25%. At the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, credentials increased by 28% in the last five years; credentials awarded to underrepresented minority students at KCTCS increased by 46% during that same period.
“It is clear from the data that we are doing an excellent job closing achievement gaps with underrepresented minority students because we keep equity at the forefront of everything we do,” said Thompson. “CPE has shaped a stand-alone Diversity, Equity and Inclusion unit to drive state programming. We still have work to do, but we have a lot of progress to be proud of.”
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