Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

President’s Message: Despite challenges, higher education made important advances in 2020

November 25, 2020

Aaron Thompson

December is the month for year-end lists, when editors curate the best the year had to offer. That got me thinking—what would earn a spot on 2020's "best of higher education" list?

On the surface, it might seem like higher education had little to celebrate this year. In March, a global pandemic shuttered campuses and moved instruction online. Technology and PPE expenses mounted, while room and board refunds and cancelled sporting events drained revenues.

Over the summer, schools grappled with how to bring students back on campus, or whether they even should. Testing, contact tracing and quarantining were our top concerns.

It was a hectic, stressful, unrelenting, and, to use the buzzword of the moment, an unprecedented year, one that put institutions to the test. Yet, with all of its challenges, 2020 had its silver linings:

5. Enrollment declines were not as bad as once feared. Undergraduate fall enrollment decreased by only 0.4% at public universities. While KCTCS enrollment fell 8.6%, that was significantly less than projected and consistent with national trends. Undergraduate minority enrollment actually increased 2.1%, while graduate enrollment rose 6.4%.

4. Institutions held the line on undergraduate resident tuition. Despite unforeseen revenue losses and an uncertain state budget, institutions took care of Kentucky families with the lowest rate increase in over two decades (0.7%).

3. Online education moved to the mainstream, clearing the way for more innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Now that faculty have overcome their resistance to virtual instruction, expect to see more hybrid approaches that combine the best aspects of asynchronous and synchronous learning.

2. Campuses made serious efforts to address systemic racial inequities. Widespread protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor raised the stakes for higher education institutions under pressure to create more diverse, equitable and inclusive spaces. We are seeing real progress on this front, as evidenced by historic gains in minority recruitment, retention and completion.

1. Kentucky colleges and universities increased degree production by 3.3% in 2019-20. To achieve Kentucky's 60x30 goal, institutions must increase annual degree production by 1.7%. We are on track to raise the state's educational attainment level to 60% by the year 2030, which will dramatically improve our standard of living and quality of life.

As we round the corner on 2020, I am reminded of this quote from Malcolm X: "Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve."

Adversity often brings out the best in us. This year, we worked together to find innovative solutions to nearly impossible problems. Let's use what we've learned to make us even stronger in 2021.

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Aaron Thompson, Ph.D.
President

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Last Updated: 7/26/2021