Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Q&A with Lee Nimocks, Vice President and Chief of Staff

March 04, 2022

Lee Nimocks
Lee Nimocks

Lee Nimocks, CPE’s vice president for strategy and chief of staff, has served at the Council since 2004. Among her many responsibilities, Lee spearheads the development of CPE’s Strategic Agenda, which drives innovation and progress throughout higher education in Kentucky.

What is the Strategic Agenda for Postsecondary Education?   

Kentucky’s Strategic Agenda for Postsecondary Education creates a unifying vision and a common set of priorities for higher education. Instead of a traditional strategic plan, the agenda is a framework to guide the work for the postsecondary system. All campus strategic plans are aligned with the state agenda. 

The agenda also lays out the role of postsecondary education in responding to the economic, educational and societal needs of the Commonwealth. So instead of focusing on the needs of colleges and universities, the agenda focuses solely on the needs of the state and Kentucky’s communities, citizens and employers.   

While many states now have public strategic agendas, Kentucky led the way on this approach back in the late 1990s. The Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997 called on the newly formed Council on Postsecondary Education to strengthen state-level coordination and oversight of higher education and develop an agenda to more closely link education outcomes to the long-term health of the state. The new agenda is the fifth one CPE has developed since 1997, and it will take us out to 2030.   

Strategic agenda cover

How was the agenda developed and who’s been involved? 

We began work on the agenda back in the fall of 2020 gathering data and conducting environmental scans. The work began in earnest in early 2021. CPE’s Academic and Strategic Initiatives Committee guided the development of the plan, and a committee made of up campus representatives acted as a working group during the process.   

Throughout the spring and summer of 2021, CPE staff and our partners at the EKU Facilitation Center conducted numerous focus group sessions and interviews with key players including campus presidents, chief academic and business officers, K-12 educators, faculty, board members, students, legislators, employers, community leaders and national higher education and workforce experts. We also did deep dives into the data to better understand trends on key performance indicators and where we were seeing both success and challenges in our work. 

The resulting document and accountability system reflects hundreds of hours of effort, but the work continues. Detailed implementation plans are being developed, campus strategies are being reviewed and three-year performance targets – both at the state and campus levels – are being finalized. The agenda is dynamic and will evolve and change over time, so our work on it will be ongoing.  

This agenda recognizes the importance equity and ensuring that ALL citizens, particularly those from populations that have historically been excluded and left behind, have access to high quality programs of study and the preparation, information and support systems to be successful.

What is the 60x30 goal and why is it central to the new agenda? 

The 60x30 goal was set in our last agenda and calls on Kentucky to increase the percent of the population with at least a postsecondary degree or certificate to 60% by 2030. We know that increasing educational attainment levels in Kentucky will help grow our economy, strengthen our workforce and improve opportunity for more citizens. As President Thompson has said, this is our North Star – this is what helps keep us focused and reminds us that at the end of the day, education is transformative, not just for individuals, but for Kentucky as a whole.  

We’ve made good progress toward the goal in recent years.  Currently, just under 50% of Kentucky adults have earned a postsecondary credential, up from about 35% a decade ago. But we also know that hitting our goal in the next eight years will be a huge challenge. Like other states, our high school population is declining. Our on-to-college rate has also dropped in recent years. And we’ve got large regions of our state where jobs aren’t plentiful so there’s limited motivation to continue education and training.

What are some of the key challenges facing postsecondary education in Kentucky and how does the agenda address them?

The agenda identifies key priority areas that we know we must make progress in. The first is college affordability. Addressing college costs and affordability have been in our past agendas, but given the environment and public concerns about paying for college, we felt this needed to be a key pillar of this agenda. Affordability issues are forcing students to drop out, or stop out, or not enroll or enroll in an institution that might not be the best fit. The affordability issues we’re facing are also about a lack of knowledge about how to pay for college. We need to make it easier on students and families to understand the ins and out of financial aid, and we need to be more transparent about college costs.  

Another big challenge is around transition points for students – particularly between K-12 and postsecondary, but also for adult who want to get additional education. Kentucky has seen a steady decline in the on-to-college rates in recent years. We’ve also seen the number of adult learners attending postsecondary education plummet in recent years. All these transition indicators are amplified by pandemic-related challenges and college-readiness concerns.  

Learn more about Kentucky's progress

Ensuring more students progress through their programs and complete them – the whole notion of student success – continues to be a key challenge. While our numbers are improving, too many students are enrolling in programs but are not making it to the finish line, particularly in some of our demographic groups – low income, minority, adult and underprepared students.  This priority area captures a lot of our work and focus and will be core to the work of the Student Success Collaborative.  

Another key challenge we face is ensuring that students are prepared to transition into a career after graduation. It’s about creating strong alignment between academic programs and employer needs, but it’s also about helping guide students to a career path that makes sense for them. It’s also about capitalizing on the research, teaching and administrative talent on a campus to help improve communities, grow and support businesses.   

How does the agenda respond to the educational needs of students who have been historically underrepresented or excluded from higher education? 

This agenda recognizes the importance equity and ensuring that ALL citizens, particularly those from populations that have historically been excluded and left behind, have access to high quality programs of study and the preparation, information and support systems to be successful. Equity is a cross-cutting priority and the thread that ties the agenda together - meaning that in every objective, strategy and measure of success, equity will a central consideration. 

One of the priorities is value (of higher education) – can you explain why this was included as a key priority? 

We know that one of the biggest challenges facing higher education is how students, families, the public and decision-makers perceive its value. We need to do more to increase public belief in the power of postsecondary education. We need to do a better job communicating the value of higher education and engaging the public in a conversation about college and its return on investment. We also need to be more transparent about college costs and performance and any other issues of concern. 

One of the ways to achieve this is to be more strategic about our communications - specifically about the strong return on investment to the student and the state. As part of the introduction of the new strategic agenda we’ve launched a statewide Higher Education Matters Campaign that includes social media, radio and television targeting messaging to key decision-makers about how Kentucky’s postsecondary system helps drive a strong economy, builds a better workforce, and improves opportunity and quality of life for all citizens.

How will we know if we are making progress on the agenda? 

We’ve developed a strong accountability system that helps policymakers and the public understand whether individual campuses and the system is making progress in priority areas. Performance metrics have been established and campus-level targets have been negotiated to help monitor and accelerate progress. Progress updates in each of the priority areas will be presented to the board throughout the year, and college and university presidents will provide annual performance presentations to keep the board updated on campus-level work.  

Perhaps most importantly, several of the strategic agenda metrics are included in the state’s performance funding model, so how campuses perform in terms of the strategic agenda in part determines funding for their campuses. The metrics also are used in the state’s diversity, equity and inclusion evaluations, which are linked to a campus’s ability to offer new academic programs.  

Last Updated: 3/4/2022