Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

President’s message: Reimagining the college student

June 30, 2022

Aaron Thompson

If you ask most people to envision a college student, they’ll picture a young person fresh out of high school, living in a dorm room and attending class during the day to earn their four-year degree. But this narrow vision of who belongs in college is holding us back.  

The 30-something parent with a full-time job attending classes in the evening is a college student. The experienced tradesperson earning a credential to level up their skills is a college student. The schoolteacher earning her master’s degree on the weekends is a college student.  

We can’t reach our statewide goal of 60% of Kentuckians holding a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030 if we don’t reach out to these nontraditional students. Meeting this goal will help invigorate our economy and improve the lives of Kentuckians, which is why, here at CPE, we are examining who these students are and working to help colleges and universities meet their unique needs.  

For example, our recent report with the University of Kentucky’s Martin School on the earnings and employment of Kentucky’s certificate earners focused on working-age students with a record of employment before attending college. It found they earned more money and had a higher probability of being employed after earning their certificate. These findings are not surprising, but they are worth paying attention to, especially in Kentucky. Historically, Kentucky has had the highest rate in the country of certificates awarded per capita—nearly twice the national average—and it is growing rapidly.  

We have an expanding pool of potential students who may have different needs than traditional college students. They need flexibility and support to balance school with the rest of their responsibilities, which could mean more convenient class times, virtual options, child care or easy transitions between schools or programs.   

That’s where programs like our Adult Attainment Academy come in. The academy is a cross-agency team that has been working over the past eight months to understand the biggest barriers and challenges for adult learners in the commonwealth. They are assembling a report for release this fall that will detail their findings and recommendations and give us a roadmap for improving our service to adult learners.   

Our Degrees When Due initiative, which concluded in February 2022 with support from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, focused on helping campuses build capacity and infrastructure to get near-completers and adult learners to graduation. Campus participants are eager to continue the community of practice, and the Attainment Academy team is considering how to build on the success of this initiative. 

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that we have a tremendous capacity to innovate to meet the evolving needs of our varied student populations. If we retain that spirit of innovation, we can make the higher education community more inclusive to everyone who seeks to further their education, no matter what stage of life they are in or what barriers they face along the way.  

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Aaron Thompson, Ph.D.

Last Updated: 6/30/2022