The good news is that a record number of Kentucky college and university students are receiving undergraduate degrees. The bad news, according to state Council on Postsecondary Education President Aaron Thompson, is that a five-year trend of declining college enrollment continues.
Data indicates that 76,380 degrees and credentials were earned at the state’s public and independent colleges and universities during the 2018-19 year — a 4.7% jump from the previous year. While those numbers keep Kentucky on track to meet its goal of 60% of the population with a postsecondary credential by 2030, a decrease in the number of students enrolling at higher education institutions is worrisome.
In fact, preliminary fall semester enrollment figures indicate a 2% decline in the number of students — continuing a tumble that began in the 2014-15 academic year.
That is the case at Thompson’s former stomping grounds Kentucky State University, where he served a one-year stint as interim president. Student enrollment dropped 7.5% — or 145 students — from 2017-18 to last year.
However, unlike the majority of state schools, KSU has also seen a reduction in the number of degrees and credentials it has awarded during the past two academic years. After reaching a plateau of 401 degrees issued in 2016-17, that number plummeted 14.2% to 344 the following year and an additional 12.8% to 300 last school year.
The enrollment problem stems largely from a school’s retention rate, as students are more likely to drop out during the first year than any other time. Implementing policies that increase retention rates, whether at the schools or through a transfer to another institution, will equally raise the likelihood that students will graduate.
Of the eight Kentucky public four-year colleges, the University of Kentucky has the highest six-year graduation rate with 65.8%. K-State has the lowest six-year graduation rate with a measly 16.3%. The next closest school to KSU is Northern Kentucky University with 43.8%.
We agree with Thompson that higher learning institutions must be dedicated to supporting students, guiding them and ensuring they complete their programs with the skills for workforce success.
“That is when,” he continued, “we can truly say we are successful.”