July 25, 2014

A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Rick Rand

FRANKFORT – About a month ago, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reaffirmed what has long been assumed: A college degree really is worth the investment.

Using data dating back to 1973, the Fed determined that those with a bachelor’s degree earn about $64,500 a year, which is nearly $24,000 more than someone who finishes their education at the end of high school. Over a career, that difference adds up to $1.2 million, or nearly 10 times the cost to earn that four-year diploma.

Around the time this study came out, Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education announced that our public and private colleges and universities awarded more than 63,000 degrees and credentials during the 2013-14 school year. For perspective, that’s almost twice the size of Hopkinsville.

Overall, the number of degrees and certificates is marginally higher than it was in 2012-13, but when compared to a decade ago, it is easier to see just how far we have come. We now award 56 percent more associate degrees, about 45 percent more doctorates and 30 percent more four-year diplomas than we did in 2003.

There have been several other reports this summer highlighting information about our postsecondary institutions.

The General Assembly’s Program Review and Investigations Committee, for example, took an in-depth look at the demographics of college students and the costs of their education.

It found that Kentuckians make up more than 80 percent of enrollment at our public two- and four-year schools, and that about the same percentage who attend our four-year schools are under the age of 25. The average age of students enrolled with the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) is higher, with nearly half 25 and older.

That’s not surprising, since we’re seeing a growing number of older adults returning to college for additional training or to prepare for a new career. It’s a key reason why more than half of the students at KCTCS are part-time.

In terms of employment, the legislative committee found that nearly two-thirds of those getting their four-year degree at a public university in 2011 were working in Kentucky the following year. KCTCS boasts an even higher figure – about 77 percent – but it had a smaller number of graduates.

It is worth noting that the General Assembly approved a new law this year that will track employment and earnings of college graduates in the future, so that new students can have a clearer idea of what to expect in their chosen career.

Two of the more troubling areas the Program Review Committee highlighted are the college-completion rate and student debt.

A little less than half of the 2000 class of incoming freshmen at our public four-year universities, for example, got their bachelor’s degree within six years. Although more students are now attending college, that rate has changed little since then.

Being able to afford college is another concern. Federal student loans in 2011 topped a half-billion dollars, and more than half of our college students attending a public four-year school graduate with debt. Financial-aid programs funded by the state’s lottery are helping, but there is not enough to meet all of the need.

College affordability is a national issue, of course, and in one comparison, our four-year college tuition and fees are right in the middle when ranking these schools against their benchmark counterparts in other states, according to the legislative study.

In addition to trying to minimize postsecondary cuts in an era of budget reductions, the General Assembly also passed a law in 2010 making it easier to transfer credits from lower-cost KCTCS schools to our universities.

That made an immediate difference, with the number of transferring students rising from about 8,000 the year before the law to about 12,000 now.

Rounding out the postsecondary picture in Kentucky are our independent colleges and universities. A June report from these 19 schools shows they enroll more than 36,000 students – which is nearly 10,000 more than in 2003 – and they produce more than a fifth of Kentucky’s four-year degrees. That includes a sizeable number of nurses and those majoring in such areas as chemistry and math.

As these studies and others have shown, Kentucky’s colleges and universities have come a long way in meeting the postsecondary goals the state set in the late 1990s for 2020. Still, there is a considerable amount of work ahead during the next five-and-a-half years. With a college education more of a necessity than ever before, the need to exceed what we are doing to meet those goals is clear, and it promises to be one of the most pressing challenges legislators and education officials face between now and the end of the decade.

If you would like to let me know your thoughts or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me. My address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort KY 40601; or you can email me at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov.

To leave a message for me or for any legislator, call toll-free at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Paid for by Rick Rand for State Representative, Regina Rand, Treasurer