Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Kentucky Higher Education Matters

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Kentucky higher education matters: The Council's most recent study shows how a college credential benefits both the individual student and the state as a whole.

What is higher education in Kentucky?

Higher education matters

When most people think of higher education, they think of an 18 year-old heading off to a university, living on campus in a dorm, going to school full-time for four to five years. However, Kentucky has many options outside of that assumption that fall under the category of "higher education." These can be an adult enrolling in an online degree program part-time, a high school graduate participating in an apprenticeship program or a student pursuing a technical certificate or associate degree at a KCTCS college.

To learn more about the depth and breadth of Kentucky's higher education institutions, view the Council's inventory of institutions:

Benefits of higher education in Kentucky

Those with a college degree earn more than high school graduates.

Immediate earnings

After eight years of being in the workforce:

Graph of median earnings

Our research takes into consideration that many college students work while in school, which accounts for the lower levels of income in the graph below. However, once college students graduate within three to six years and begin working full-time, their earnings increase at a much faster and higher rate than a high school graduate.

A closer look at earnings

Overall, each successive level of education improved economic standing. In 2019, 43.7% of four-year bachelor’s degree graduates ranked in the highest income percentile, compared to only 21.4% of high school graduates.

Chart of quartiles
Below 25th (Below $19,235), 25th-50th ($19,235-$31,615), 50th-75th ($31,615-$44,422), Above 75th ($44,422 and Above)

Earnings based on major

Health and STEM majors typically had the highest entry-level earnings at the baccalaureate level, while arts/humanities majors typically had the lowest. However, studies show arts/humanities majors tend to narrow or close wage gaps over time.

Chart of earnings

Earnings over a lifetime

A true investment amount takes into account total out-of-pocket (net) cost of a college education, as well as the income lost as a result of attending school. Even taking into consideration the cost to attend college, lost earnings and possible student loan interest, college graduates have a greater return on investment over a high school graduate.

Over a lifetime, the median lifetime earnings of a Kentucky bachelor’s degree graduate are $1 million more than a high school graduate, while median earnings for associate degree graduates are nearly $400,000 more.

Overall benefits of higher education to the state and individual

(Not included in the Kentucky Higher Education's Return on Investment Report.)


Source: 2018 Kentucky Behavioral Risk Factor Survey. Kentucky Department for Public Health.

Civic Engagement

Source: AGB Guardians Initiative.

Job Preparation

Source: Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020. Center for Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University.


Source: The College Board.

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Last Updated: 12/5/2023