Data released this week shows that Louisville is lagging in its effort to ensure that half the city’s residents have an associate’s degree or higher by 2020.
The 55,000 Degrees Initiative, a public-private collaboration, began in 2010 and aims to increase the overall educational attainment level in Louisville. As the initiative reaches its halfway point, more Louisville residents than ever before have earned college degrees — 41 percent of the population as of 2014, according to findings in a report released this week by 55,000 Degrees and KentuckianaWorks.
But the current rate at which that percentage is climbing is not enough to hit the mark by 2020.
The report shows that the degree attainment rate in Louisville during the previous two years has grown at 0.2 percent. That growth rate will lead to just 44 percent of the city’s residents having a higher education degree by 2020.
To reach the end goal of half the city’s population having a degree by 2020, the attainment rate needs to be at least 1.4 percent, the report says.
It’s a reasonable target, said Mary Gwen Wheeler, head of 55,000 Degrees. For evidence she points to Nashville, which has been able to hold a steady attainment rate average of nearly 1.5 percent since 2011.
Still, it’s a big jump from the current rate in Louisville. And because of that, Wheeler said the focus on hitting the end goal by 2020 must be multifaceted, beyond just boosting the attainment rate.
“We have to do more than improve our education pipeline,” she said.
Steps that could lead to improving the attainment rate include ensuring students have access to earn college credits while still enrolled in high school.
Also, students graduating high school must be prepared for college and understand what pathway they need to take to be successful.
Graduation rates and college or career readiness rates among Jefferson County Public Schools students are trending up, according to the report. And last year, for the first time in five years, the rate of local high school graduates enrolling in college inched upward. In 2014, nearly 67 percent of Jefferson County Public Schools grads enrolled in a local institution, according to report.
Still, since 2010 the total number of students enrolling in local higher education institutions has dropped nearly 12 percent, the report shows. In 2014, more than half of the students who graduated from local high schools attended local higher education institutions.
Improving the educational pipeline also includes getting the some 95,000 adults in Louisville who have college credits but no degree to go back and graduate. Wheeler said this can be difficult for working adults or parents, but many have the desire to do it.
“They know it helps their career and their own ability to earn more,” she said.
Wheeler said 55,000 Degrees is partnering with KentuckianaWorks to offer programming to adults that aims to help guide them through the balancing act of going back to school and working. And she said local institutions need to offer more flexibility to adults wanting to go back to school.
Improving this educational pipeline only works for the end goal of 55,000 Degrees if the graduates — young or old — chose to stay in Louisville once they finish school, Wheeler said.
That leads to the third aspect of boosting the stock of educated residents in Louisville: bringing in new ones. This includes not only attracting talented, educated workers to Louisville, but also getting the some 14,000 local high school grads who leave the city for college elsewhere to come back, Wheeler said.
To reach the 2020 goal, Louisville needs to add 36,000 degrees, according to the report. From 2008 to 2014, more than 62,000 undergraduate degrees have been produced in Louisville, but due to people leaving the population of degree holders has increased by only about 23,000, per the report.
Michael Gritton, executive director of KentuckianaWorks, said leaders from across the city — from arts to government — are working to attract and retain graduates. For example, he said thousands of non-local students come to Louisville every year to go to college. That presents an opportunity.
“We’re not doing nearly enough to try to get to be connected to Louisville as a city, to learn about our companies, to learn about where are jobs are growing and to figure out where they might be able to plug into our local economy,” he said.