The Public Agenda for Postsecondary and Adult Education: In Pursuit of Increased Educational Attainment
By Dr. Thomas D. Layzell
Over time, increased levels of educational attainment will lead to a society with a standard of living and a quality of life that meets or exceeds the national average. This simple idea lies at the heart of Kentucky’s acclaimed postsecondary and adult education reforms. The idea is easy to state, but its realization will challenge us all. Making it happen is the primary objective of the Council on Postsecondary Education’s public agenda.
Five short, simple, yet powerful questions focused on the people of Kentucky will guide implementation of the public agenda:
1. Are more Kentuckians ready for postsecondary education?
2. Is Kentucky postsecondary education affordable for its citizens?
3. Do more Kentuckians have certificates and degrees?
4. Are college graduates prepared for life and work in Kentucky?
5. Are Kentucky’s people, communities and economy benefiting?
How are we doing? There is little doubt that the reforms have been successful. Since 1997, the date of the initial reform legislation, postsecondary education enrollment has increased 25 percent; adult education enrollment has increased 135 percent; degrees awarded have increased 22 percent; graduation rates have increased from 37 percent to 45 percent; and federal research funding has nearly doubled.
The early results are promising, but the task ahead of us is daunting. Our biggest challenge is our low level of educational attainment, which continues to lag national averages. National data indicate that only 15 of every 100 ninth graders in Kentucky graduate from college in a timely manner. This is an alarming statistic, but the national average of 18 per 100 is not much better. Despite progress, in 2000, the proportion of adults holding the high school diploma or its equivalent equaled or exceeded the national average in only 11 counties. The statistics are even worse at the bachelor’s degree level; only five counties equaled or exceeded the national average. Current projections indicate that we must double the number of baccalaureate degree holders from 400,000 to 800,000 to reach the national average by 2020.
Meeting these and other challenges will require substantial investments of time, energy and resources. It will also require our steadfast refusal to be deterred by the inevitable obstacles that will arise. Will the investment and effort be worth it?
A look at the experience of other states shows that if we are successful in our attempt to increase educational attainment, we, and those who come after us, will be better educated, be more competitive in the global economy, have more cultural opportunities, have better access to health care, and have higher incomes.
Our own history leaves little doubt that Kentuckians are better off today than we would have been without the efforts of those who came before us to improve educational opportunities. That we are not where we would like to be is not evidence that those efforts failed; instead, it is evidence of our need to do more, do it better and do it faster.
A year ago, the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center concluded that if we reach the projected 2020 national average in baccalaureate degree attainment, the Commonwealth will realize an additional $5.3 billion in tax revenues and an additional $71.0 billion in personal income. Revenues of these magnitudes would unquestionably produce substantial public and private benefits.
The promise of the public agenda is better lives for Kentucky’s people. The public agenda describes two futures that await us in 2020 – one that is the result of us doing what it takes to implement the agenda, and one that is the result of our inability or unwillingness to meet our challenges head on. Which will it be?