Politics & Government

Report: Low-income, minority students losing ground at Kentucky colleges

Low-income and minority students are losing ground at Kentucky's colleges and universities after repeated funding cuts by state lawmakers, according to the Council on Postsecondary Education's latest annual report card.

The report showed a three-year graduation rate of 10.4 percent in the 2012-13 academic year for low-income students seeking an associates degree, down from 10.8 percent in 2009-10 and below the overall graduation rate of 12.8 percent.

Among low-income students seeking a bachelor's degree, the latest six-year graduation rate was 36.6 percent, up slightly from 34.5 percent in 2010-11 and well below the overall graduation rate of 48.9 percent.

The state's colleges and universities also have made little progress on graduation rates for minority students. Only 33.3 percent of underrepresented minorities seeking a bachelor's degree graduated, up 0.1 percent from 2008-09. For minorities seeking an associates degree, the graduation rate was 6.8 percent, down from 7.2 percent in 2009-10.

The scorecard, called "Stronger by Degrees" includes 27 measurements, ranging from the college readiness of students to research funding. For each category, the state set a goal that is supposed to be met by the end of the 2014-15 school year.

Colleges and universities have met five of the goals and are on track to meet one other, but they're gaining too slowly or going backward in the other 21 measurements.

On the positive side, Kentucky has met its goal for total degrees and credentials awarded, which was 62,415 in 2012-13, topping next year's goal of 59,400. The state also met its goals for graduate degrees and transfers from the Kentucky Community and Technical College system to four-year colleges and universities.

Most of the lost ground was in funding and the progress of Kentucky's most vulnerable students.

The state appropriated $916 per student to colleges and universities in 2012-13, down from $1,029 in 2009-10. In addition, 107,552 low-income students who were eligible for state need-based financial aid in 2012-13 did not get a grant because funds ran out.

Overall, the General Assembly has cut $173 million from higher education since 2008.

State officials said there's a large correlation between more financial aid and better student success, and that helping the most vulnerable students in Kentucky is crucial to improve many statistics.

"Gaps are one of our primary focuses here because of the need to get those most disenfranchised to the finish line," said Aaron Thompson, executive vice president at the council. "If we do that it has great impact on our Medicaid, great impact on fewer people in prisons and other things we spend our money on late in people's lives."

Thompson said he would like to see statistics that capture the many community college students who stop going to school for financial reasons but often return to get their degrees. The statistics are based on full-time students who get a degree in three years.

State cuts have forced most schools to raise tuition, up about 200 percent since 1998 statewide, said Ashley Spalding, a research associate at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

"What feels more urgent about this report is we're almost at the end of these state goals in how the state has decided to measure itself, and there is little to no progress being made in some of these areas," Spalding said.

The General Assembly will return to Frankfort in January, but lawmakers are not expected to suddenly pour more money into higher education.

Still, Thompson said he hoped the numbers would speak for themselves.

"We are hoping we can argue that higher education is a way to solve many of the ills of Kentucky," he said.