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Louisville Needs to 'Pick Up the Pace' for 55,000 Degrees Goal Despite Record Number of Degrees

More working-age adults in Louisville have earned college degrees than ever before, but the area still struggles to meet industry demand and is not on track to reach several education goals, according to the third annual 55,000 Degrees progress report released Monday.“We’ve got to pick up the pace,” says Mayor Greg Fischer who chairs the 55,000 Degrees initiative—a private-public partnership introduced in 2010 to create and guide goals that include half the city’s population obtaining an associate degree of higher by 2020.

While some indicators have improved—the number of degrees earned at area colleges and universities, for example—a combination of social, educational, and economic factors will determine whether Louisville will meet its goals.About 41.3 percent of working-age adults in Louisville have an associate degree or higher, which means there are more than 20,000 degrees that will count toward the goal. That’s a rebound from 38.9 percent last year, when the number dropped from the 2011 progress report. (Click here to see last year's progress report)The two challenges—as pointed out in the report—are keeping those graduates in Louisville and attracting new college graduates from outside the region.When considering 2006 graduates from area colleges, less than half were employed in the Louisville region after five years, this year's report said.“Louisville retained 42 percent of associate degree and 37 percent of bachelor’s degree earners.” Only 6 percent of graduates from other Kentucky colleges were attracted to Louisville.The types of degrees being earned do not match the area’s needs, officials proposed.“We’re producing more college graduates right now, but too many of them can’t find a job in this city that meets their interest,” Fischer says. “And then at the same time a number of employers that we have are saying that they can’t find the skills that they need to employ graduates from Louisville.”That’s an issue the public education system—including higher education—is trying to tackle in partnership with area businesses. Jefferson County Public Schools has geared student learning toward college-and-career ready standards and has reinvented its career themed schools, while also trying to include more real world learning experiences in partnership with local businesses.More students have graduated from JCPS and more students are deemed college and career ready when they graduate, according to recent state data.At the same time, more than 60 companies have joined the Degrees at Work effort to help some of the estimated 96,000 working-age adults with some college credit complete their degrees. Humana was the most recent business to announce it will help 2,000 employees earn their degrees through the program.The number of working-age adults enrolling in Louisville area colleges and universities continues to be a bright spot for the region. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of adult students increased around 42 percent nationally, while Louisville saw a 67 percent increase.Working-age adults are also more likely to finish their degree than younger college students, officials say.But Louisville still struggles to convince degree earners to stick around and its lack of competitive wages is seen by city leaders as one reason why so much “brain drain” happens. Check out this report by the Greater Louisville Project that looks at where Louisville stands with competitive wage growth.“For a long time we used to celebrate that we were a low cost-of-living community. Well, on the other side of that coin is [a] low paying community,” says Ted Smith, Louisville Metro’s director of economic development and innovation.While trying to meet the area’s industry and business demands, the city shouldn’t lose sight on staying competitive outside the region, so businesses looking to relocate could choose Louisville as an option, Smith said.This might include investing in areas of potential new growth.“We can’t lose sight of building capacity in areas that are demonstrating growth in other parts of the country, in other parts of the world, yet aren’t areas of growth for us,” Smith said.Louisville also has to do a better job with minority gaps, which JCPS has also recently said when test scores where released. The number of African American and Latino degree earners has also increased, but they still represent a disproportionate number of degrees being earned. African American and Latino residents make up around 25 percent of Louisville’s population, but they represent about  17 percent of degree earners, the report said.Attached to the 55,000 Degrees initiative are the 15,000 Degrees initiative or African Americans and Behold 1,500 Latinos initiative.Also, an increased Louisville population means more degrees are needed to meet the goal of having 50 percent of working-age residents earn an associate’s degree or greater. Now it’s closer to 59,000 degrees needed.(Image via Shutterstock)

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