FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and many of the state's leaders, including Gov. Steve Beshear and Senate President David Williams, appeared Wednesday at an event touting Kentucky's higher education progress during the past decade.
The council released statistics from a consultant saying that Kentucky was tops in the nation in the percentage of improvement in the number of adults ages 25 to 64 with college degrees, including associate and bachelor's degrees, from 2000 to 2009.
The state also is first in improving the six-year graduation rates at four-year institutions.
The improvements did not propel Kentucky to the top of national standings. In the area of adults ages 25 to 64 with college degrees, the state ranks 45th in the nation, up from 47th in 2000. The state went from 44th to 35th in the category of six-year graduation rates at four-year institutions, which includes private and public schools.
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The three-year graduate rate at two-year institutions increased 42.7 percent, moving Kentucky to 16th from 38th nationwide.
Bob King, president of the council, called the results "pleasantly surprising."
Kentucky is being perceived as having a more educated population, said consultant Aims McGuinness of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
However, Williams said the state still has a gap between education attainment and providing jobs for students once they graduate, which might lead graduates to other states for job opportunities.
"It's important to know Kentucky is not there yet," McGuinness said. He cited the Kentucky Community and Technical College system for helping improve degree production in the state, but he said some schools "are still not standing up to the plate."
Beshear said that while the nationwide statistics were encouraging, "now is not the time to declare victory," because Kentucky still faces many challenges in education and economic development.
The most explosive growth in Kentucky is in certificates for specialized jobs, which are neither associate nor bachelor's degrees. The number rose from 1,977 in 2000-01 to 15,767 in 2009-10 at the Kentucky community college system, according to the consultant's report.
Kentucky's public universities have struggled under budget constraints, while students have been paying more for their educations because of repeated tuition increases. The most recent tuition increase came in April, when the Council on Postsecondary Education voted to allow the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville to raise tuition by 6 percent, while comprehensive universities such as Eastern Kentucky University were allowed a 5 percent increase, and community colleges' tuition went up 4 percent.
Speakers at the Wednesday event gave credit to former Gov. Paul Patton, who considered himself the "higher education governor" and was the driving force behind 1997 legislation to change Kentucky's higher education structure.
More sobering news was included deeper in the study.
The gap in Kentucky college attainment between whites and minorities ages 25 to 44 has widened since 2000.
States such as Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington "are in an enviable position because of their ability to import substantially more college-educated residents from out-of-state than they export" — meaning those states attain high education levels regardless of the performances of their colleges and universities.
While Kentucky is not a "brain-drain" state that loses more college-educated residents than it retains or attracts, and it imports some bachelor's degree and graduate and professional degree-holders, those numbers are dwarfed by the number of people who didn't graduate from high school and high school-only graduates who moved into the state from 2005 to 2009.
The study said 3,954 people who didn't have high school diplomas moved into Kentucky during that time, compared with 696 who moved into the state with bachelor's degrees.
To close the gap between Kentucky and the United States on college attainment by 2020, Kentucky would have to produce 1,215 additional degrees in 2010-11, 2,230 in 2012-13 and 3,345 in 2013-14. The number would have to increase by 1,215 in each of the subsequent years.
While some Kentucky leaders had been vocal about the drive to increase the number of residents with bachelor's degrees and had considered it a key measure of education improvements, King and Patton said the improvement in the number of associate degrees also can be considered a key measure.
Patton, chairman of the Council on Postsecondary Education, asked it in 2010 for more detailed numbers on assessing the state's education attainment and criticized the organization's Double the Numbers program, which aims to double the number of college graduates living in Kentucky by 2020, to 800,000. A report commissioned by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in 2007 called for increasing the number of associate degrees and specialized certificates in addition to increasing the number of bachelor's degrees.
Twenty percent of Kentucky residents 25 and older have bachelor's degrees, according to the 2010 U.S. census. That would be slightly more than 603,000 residents, according to figures from 2009 census data.
About 187,000 Kentuckians have associate degrees, according to census figures.