College graduation up in Kentucky, but low-income, minority students struggling

lblackford@herald-leader.comDecember 18, 2013 

C. ALUKA BERRY — The State/MCT

Kentucky's college students are graduating in greater numbers than ever before, but a statewide report card on higher education shows troubling gaps for low-income and minority students.

"We're producing more graduates, but these numbers that are embedded in here are difficult," said Bob King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, which produced the Stronger By Degrees report using data from the 2011-2012 school year.

The scorecard includes 27 measurements, ranging from the college readiness of students to research funding. For 2011-2012, the state met or exceeded its goals for 2014 in four areas, was on track to meet those goals in another four areas, made some progress in nine areas, held steady in two, and lost ground in eight.

For example, the state's public colleges and universities awarded 61,859 degrees and credentials that year, exceeding the 2014 goal of 59,400. Graduate degrees also exceeded the 2014 target of 10,250 by about 100. And 12,492 students transferred from the Kentucky Community and Technical College System to four-year schools, considerably beyond the 2014 goal of 9,580.

The news was worse for low-income students trying to earn bachelors' degrees. Their graduation rate fell from 46.2 percent to 34.5 percent. Minority graduation rates also fell from 37 percent to 34 percent.

Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, called the lost ground in graduation rates for low-income students "perhaps the most troubling number in the report."

He noted that it can probably be tied to major funding concerns, particularly tuition hikes that hurt low-income students at a time when demand for need-based aid far outstrips supply. In 2013, 96,666 students who are eligible for need-based aid were turned down because money had already run out.

"This lack of support coupled with rising tuition undoubtedly factors into the lost ground in the bachelor's degree attainment rate for low-income and underprepared students, and the lack of progress in bachelor's degrees among underrepresented minority students," Bailey said. "The state also continues to back away from its responsibility to help finance higher education institutions in general, which inevitably means tuition hikes.

"By making college less affordable for many Kentuckians, we are discouraging them from getting the skills they need to obtain decent employment or putting them deep in debt, both of which harm our economy," Bailey said.

The report also gives individual report cards for the state's universities and two-year colleges. For example, the University of Kentucky has met its 2014 target for graduate degrees, awarding about 790 in 2011-2012, but its bachelors' degree graduation rate went down two percentage points to 57.5 percent.

The report card also examines some test scores for new teachers, but King said the state needs more comprehensive ways to measure the quality of new teachers. The state's education schools are working on such measures, which should be included in next year's report card, he said.

Teacher preparation will be getting plenty of attention in the future because of a federal pilot program aimed at improving teacher quality. On Wednesday, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence also released a new study on teacher quality. The report makes a series of recommendations, including more observation time in classrooms for teaching students and better mentoring opportunities.

To see the entire report card, go to www.cpe.ky.gov/planning. To see the Prichard Committee report, go to www.prichardcommittee.org.

Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359 Twitter: @lbblackford

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