Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Council calls for bold action to address declines in college enrollment

March 03, 2021

Photo credit: Western Kentucky University.

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education is calling on education leaders across the state to take decisive steps to combat a drop in college enrollment, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19.

The latest data from CPE shows that undergraduate enrollment at four-year public universities declined 2.1% in fall 2020, and it's down 7.3% compared to five years ago. At the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, the number dropped 10.5% this past semester and 12.3% compared to fall 2015.

In addition, Kentucky's in-state college-going rate among new high school graduates also fell from 54% in 2015 to 50.5% in 2019.


Members of the Council have now adopted a resolution, calling attention to the downturn and citing fears that it could harm educational and economic opportunities in Kentucky. They also warn that drops in enrollment could prevent the state from meeting key attainment goals in CPE's strategic agenda.

"The Council on Postsecondary Education recognizes the urgency and the need to reverse the trends stated above," the resolution reads. "The Council therefore deems this a priority that (CPE President Aaron Thompson) work closely with campus leaders, K-12 partners, the Commonwealth Education Continuum, and other stakeholders to implement bold actions and strategies to mitigate the near term enrollment impacts of COVID-19."

Council member Lucas Mentzer, who proposed the resolution, said the group wanted to embolden and empower CPE as well as others around the state to take resolute measures on the issue.

"We are seeing these negative trends and felt the need to take a strong, public stance," he said.

We all have a tremendous stake in higher education, and our progress as a state depends greatly on our success and recovery at the campus level. - CPE President Aaron Thompson

Thompson said the resolution serves as both a warning sign and a call to action for the entire commonwealth. He thanked the Council for remaining proactive and said CPE and its multiple partners will continue to seek out and implement every possible strategy to curb the declines.

"The Council understands that this is a systematic concern that demands a systematic response, and we expect this work to continue beyond a single academic year," he said. "We all have a tremendous stake in higher education, and our progress as a state depends greatly on our success and recovery at the campus level."

Kentucky is not alone in enrollment challenges. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, total fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment, including all sectors both public and private, fell by an average of 4.4% across the county this past fall. Only five states experienced an increase.

Kentucky declined 4.1%, compared to the bordering states of Ohio (-3.2%), West Virginia (+1.5%), Virginia (-2.1%), Tennessee (-5.2%), Missouri (-3.3%) and Illinois (-6.4%), and Indiana (-9.2%).

CPE is already undertaking multiple efforts to support enrollment and college-going throughout the state.

The Council is one of several groups leading the Commonwealth Education Continuum, a new statewide effort to help students transition through the public education system and into college and careers. The 30-member group kicked off its work this year with a focus on improving college-going rates and easing the transition from high school to college.

CPE is also working with six other educational organizations to promote the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA form. Submitting the form is an important first step to receive need-based aid and other financial assistance for college. However, submissions are down 19% among Kentucky high school seniors this year, compared to a 10% decline nationally, according to the Form Your Future website.

Despite the challenges in enrollment, Kentucky has also continued to make progress on key measures in higher education. For instance, the six-year graduation rate at four-year public universities reached 56.4% in the 2019-20 academic year, up from 55% the year prior. The average second-year retention rate at public universities also climbed to 80.7% in 2019-20, up from 78.2% from the previous year.

But declines in enrollment could hamper CPE's 60x30 goal, an ambitious effort to raise the percentage of working-age Kentuckians with a high-quality postsecondary degree or certificate to 60 percent by the year 2030.

Last Updated: 7/23/2021