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Louisville is Not on Track to Meet Its 55,000 College Degrees Goals

Just this year, Jefferson County Public Schools earned its highest graduation rate ever and more students were prepared for college and careers.

But fewer of those students actually enrolled in college.

That’s one of several takeaways from the latest progress report released Tuesday by Louisville's 55,000 Degrees initiative, a private-public partnership introduced in 2010 with a goal of having half the county's population obtain an associate degree or higher by 2020.

Louisville is not on track to meet the goal, according to the report.

(You can see the entire progress report below.)

“It’s not the rate of increase that we need,” said Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees.
The percentage of Louisville’s population that has an associate degree or higher remained statistically flat when compared to last year, though it still remains the city’s highest level at 41.5 percent. That means around 59,000 degrees need to be earned to meet the 2020 goal.

“Those who start college, we really need to help them finish,” she said.

Hitting the target will partly depend on whether some of Jefferson County’s 94,000 adults (roughly a quarter of the working age population) who have some college credit can complete their degrees. But that's also been the group which has been the most difficult to convince, according to the report.

There's been a 15 percent decline in college enrollment for adults. And the persistence rate (the rate which they return for a second year) is among the lowest of measured groups at 42 percent—and falling fast, the report shows.

That's partly because adults are more likely to attend part-time and enroll several years after high school. They're also more likely to attend a two-year university, where fewer students graduate  compared to a four-year university.
Part of meeting the challenge depends on a work-force that meets the needs of its graduates, and vice versa, according to 55,000 Degrees. Louisville must attract and retain more college graduates.

For example, only one-third of the area’s college graduates are employed in Louisville five years later, said Wheeler.

“That’s particularly hard hit at the bachelor degree level,” she said.

The good news is that more JCPS kids are prepared for college or a career—61.5 percent—and Hispanic and African American students saw greater improvements this past school year than their white peers, which should help to close the achievement gap, Wheeler said.

Having more students college and career ready will “absolutely” help them with finishing college, she said, but the cost of education and doubts of the value of college degree remain barriers.

Despite tuition rates that continue to rise every year, the cost of higher education is still worth the price tag, said Wheeler.

But many adults are still choosing other routes and it'll cost them money, the report argues.

In Louisville, someone with a bachelor's degree makes a median income of $46,000 annually. For those with a high school diploma it's $27,000.

While Louisville's population has grown faster than predicted when 55,000 Degrees launched, the goal of having half the county's population be college degree holders won't be met at this pace until the year 2030.