Education cannot solve all of our economic problems, as the many college-educated young people now unemployed and underemployed can attest. But low levels of educational attainment are an important reason for Kentucky’s economic challenges. A more skilled and educated citizenry is critical to building a Kentucky economy and society that can flourish.
While policy discussions of education often focus on children and traditional-age college students, Kentucky adults ages 25-54 face severe gaps in college attainment that impede state progress and family well-being. Those adults will be participating in the workforce for decades to come, and evidence suggests that a growing share of jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. Yet as the figure below shows, only 30.7 percent of them have an associate’s degree or higher. An astounding 22.4 percent have some postsecondary education but have not completed a degree. The remaining 46.9 percent have only a high school degree, a GED or less.
Source: Working Poor Families Project data generated by Population Reference Bureau from American Community Survey 2010
Despite these low levels of education, only 6.9 percent of adults 25-54 are currently enrolled in postsecondary education institutions.
The cuts to higher education included in the new state budget for 2013-2014 will only make it harder for those adults to attain more education, as the budget reductions will further drive up tuition and limit funding for programs to assist them. As we reported in a recent brief, state per student funding for higher education will be at least 27 percent lower in 2014 than it was in 2008. And General Fund appropriations for adult basic education are 11 percent below their 2012 levels in the new budget.
College is made even less affordable by the lack of adequate financial aid options geared to low-income adults. Some adults enroll in school less than half-time because they are working jobs and caring for children, but that makes them ineligible for Kentucky’s major need-based programs. Even if they can attend half-time and are otherwise eligible for the main need-based aid program, known as CAP, the state is only providing funding for one-third of the students who qualify.
Also many adults do not benefit from the merit-based Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) because they attended high school before the program existed or they did not use the scholarship within five years of high school completion—the program’s time limit. In addition, adults in need of higher education are typically low-income, which often makes them ineligible to benefit from state education-related tax deductions and credits. Read more about Kentucky’s growing college affordability challenge here.
The 2013-2014 budget did include $375,000 for a new Adult Learner Degree Attainment Initiative, in which a couple of four-year universities will create programs designed to increase bachelor’s degree completion for adults. But much more must be done to help Kentucky adults obtain the basic credentials needed to make a higher standard of living even possible.