In his famous 1961 “moon shot” speech, President John F. Kennedy told Congress, “Now it is time to take longer strides, time for a great new American enterprise, time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”
Kennedy believed that landing a man on the moon was not a pipe dream; it was critical to humanity’s future. He believed that we as a nation were in the right time and place to achieve what many believed was impossible.
In my role as president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, I’m tasked with being as farsighted and ambitious about educational attainment as Kennedy was about space exploration. Not only do I believe every Kentuckian can and should earn a college degree or credential, I believe it is key to the future of our Commonwealth’s social and economic well-being.
Our state goal of raising the percentage of Kentuckians with a postsecondary degree or certificate to 60% by the year 2030 will move Kentucky closer to the projected national average, making us more competitive in an economy where almost all new jobs being created require some level of higher education.
Now is the time to take longer strides toward boosting educational attainment in Kentucky.
Kentucky’s 2022-2024 state budget made a historic investment in higher education. This support will help improve campus infrastructure and fund cutting-edge research while maintaining affordability for Kentucky students with increased funds for state financial aid. It will allow our institutions to be responsive to the needs of business and industry and help students find their path pursuing high-demand trades, short-term workforce credentials, two- and four-year degrees, or higher levels of education.
With that investment, the Council’s 2022-2030 state strategic plan for higher education will serve as a blueprint to meet our goals. Public colleges and universities will develop campus-level strategies that align with the agenda, and CPE and campuses will set numeric targets for key performance indicators to monitor progress.
Creating equitable education opportunities for Kentucky’s low-income students and underrepresented minorities is a critical area of the agenda. CPE’s comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion policy requires institutions to increase enrollment, retention and completion for underrepresented minority and low-income students and improve cultural competence on campus.
The agenda also focuses our work toward restoring the public’s faith in the value of higher education amidst a growing public perception that college is not worth the time or money. We know that college has a positive return on investment in measurable ways. Graduates earn higher salaries, are less likely to be unemployed, are healthier and are more active citizens. States with high levels of educational attainment receive more tax revenue to fund programs that improve the quality of life for everyone and spend fewer resources on public assistance, disease and incarceration.
To get us to our attainment goal, we need to rethink how we envision a college student. They may be a graduating senior who struggled in high school who doesn’t see themselves as college material. They may be a 30-something mother returning to finish their degree with a full-time job, or a first-generation college-goer who doesn’t know how to navigate the process.
We cannot wait until perfectly equipped students enter our institutions. We must meet students where they are, providing them with the resources and support to make postsecondary education or training possible.
I’m confident we have the vision and collaborative spirit to put more Kentuckians on the path toward a higher education credential because I’ve seen the power of our collective efforts. Over the last decade, Kentucky has improved educational attainment at a rapid pace, increasing from 30.4% to the current level of 49.4%, just shy of the national average.
We are on our way toward closing the educational gaps that are hindering Kentucky’s workforce from reaching its full potential, and now is the time to double down. Increasing the college-going rate of high school graduates and encouraging more adults to start or finish their credential is an urgent directive that affects us all.
Kennedy knew that vision mattered, but it took innovators on the ground, doing the work, to make the moon landing a reality. Everyone has a role to play in helping students overcome the obstacles in their way. I look forward to working with educators, students, parents and advocates across the state to build a world-class higher education system that fosters a brighter future for all.
Aaron Thompson is president of the Council on Postsecondary Education and an ex officio member of the Kentucky Board of Education.