From 2000 to 2009, Kentucky advanced eight places, from 44th to 36th among states, in the percent of young adults who have college degrees — the greatest gain of any state.
During that same period, Kentucky lost four places in personal per capita income, falling from 40th to 44th.
What happened? Wasn't education supposed to pay?
A report commissioned by the Council on Postsecondary Education (cpe.ky.gov) makes clear that newly minted college graduates alone cannot transform Kentucky's economy — at least not right away.
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Over time, education gains will produce economic gains, says the analysis by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. "There are few stronger relationships than the one between education and personal income."
Any doubts about the personal benefits of education are cleared up by the difference in unemployment rates between high-school graduates (9.6 percent) and those with a bachelor's degree or higher (4.3 percent). Among high school dropouts, unemployment is 14.3 percent.
Kentucky can't let up on the progress it's making toward having a work force that's as educated as the national average by 2020.
In 2000, 27.3 percent of Kentuckians, 25 to 44, had an associate degree or higher. In 2009, that percent was 33.7, compared with 39.1 nationally.
Reaching the goal will require narrowing localized gaps in education, as the map below shows, and the gap between black and white, which widened during the past 10 years.
The CPE last week set new targets to keep moving on education. But what will it take to move the economy? One obstacle is an acute shortage of jobs for graduates in science, technology, engineering and math. STEM degrees lead to higher pay and a more competitive economy. But Kentucky ranks 43rd in percentage of STEM jobs.
Kentucky fell by four places in the State New Economy Index, from 39th in 1999 to 43rd in 2010. The index measures the degree to which state economies are knowledge- and innovation- based, globalized, entrepreneurial and IT-driven.
Unlike some states that import masses of college graduates, Kentucky is not a magnet for the young and educated. Most of the people moving here lack high school or college degrees.
The report says Kentucky should do more to shed its weak education image by advertising its gains.
But that's a hard sell as long as we make news (and punch lines) for doing things like giving giant tax breaks to a Noah's Ark theme park.
Kentuckians' education gains underline the need for smarter, more effective economic development.
Kentucky's main selling point remains tax breaks, which work only until some other place gives away more. Despite some reforms, we think mainly in terms of recruiting employers. The loss of manufacturing jobs cost Kentucky thousands of middle-class incomes. To compete globally, the state will have to increase support and capital for homegrown entrepreneurs.
Kentucky also should heed the lessons about image and quality of life. What kind of message do we send by tearing down mountains and Lexington's historic center?
All in all, Kentucky's young people — who are preparing themselves to compete despite the high cost of college — seem more focused, ambitious and committed to the future than their elders.