It’s estimated that almost two-thirds of today’s jobs, or ones that will be created in coming years, will require some form of postsecondary education. But only about half of Kentuckians now have a degree or occupational credential, which doesn’t bode well for building a strong economy for the commonwealth’s future.
“There’s no such thing as great economic development in a state without a great educational system, without a highly educated workforce,” says Aaron Thompson, the new president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. “We are the key to that, but we also have to understand that we can’t do it by ourselves. That’s why we have to get industry and employers in on the front end to help us.”
Thompson became the fourth president of CPE in October of last year after having served as the council’s executive vice president and chief academic officer. He appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss preparing Kentuckians to be successful in the workforce and other education issues.
Preparing Students for Higher Education
Given ever-evolving workforce demands, the council has set an ambitious goal of raising the percentage of Kentuckians with a postsecondary degree or certificate from the current 50 percent to 60 percent by the year 2030. Thompson says that’s not just about preparing someone for a job, but preparing them for sustained success throughout their working life.
“Not everybody needs a four-year degree,” says Thompson, “but I argue that everybody needs a postsecondary credential of some sort, whether it’s workplace certificate or PhD to be actively engaged in [the] workforce.”
But Kentucky faces several challenges to meeting that goal. Thompson says young students should have good school counseling and advising to inform them about all the potential jobs that await them and the educational paths that can help prepare them. Students also need access to more apprenticeships, internships, and other training opportunities that connect what they study in school to job experiences they can expect to have later in life.
And they need programs that can show them how they can be successful in college even if they come from families that never thought higher education would be an option.
For example, Kentucky students can now take dual-credit classes that can help them progress towards a credential or degree.
“It’s college credit, but it’s done at the high school level,” says Thompson. “The rigor is the same… If they can perform and see that they can perform college work, then in fact they will know that they can go to college and be successful.”
Last year, some 35,000 students earned more than 150,000 hours of dual credits in Kentucky, according to Thompson. He says dual-credit classes not only help students try out a career path but can also save them money by enabling them to complete their postsecondary training faster.
An Investment That Pays Off
As college tuitions continue to escalate in the wake of lower state funding, Thompson says students need to know that higher education can still be a worthwhile investment. He says many institutions have increased the amount of financial aid available to students through grants, scholarships, and other incentives. So a student may actually pay much less than the actual sticker price listed for a particular certificate or degree program.
Thompson says it’s also critical that people taking out significant student loans to pay for their educations get competent career counseling advice.
“If you have a lot of debt and you get a credential and you don’t have enough money to pay it back, then I think we didn’t do a very good job on our end to help our students know what the outcome should be,” he says.
If a student borrowed money to get a degree, completed their schooling, and got a good-paying job, then that debt was a wise investment, says Thompson. But students who take out loans to pay for a program that won’t put them on track to financial success could face default. He says school administrators need to reevaluate degrees that don’t offer a good return on the student’s investment.
“Even though you may have a lot of students in a class, if that particular program doesn’t produce a living wage, then let’s not have that program any more,” says Thompson.
That’s not to say that colleges and universities should only offer degrees in science, technology, engineering, health, or medicine. Thompson contends that liberal arts degrees are still economically viable. While so-called STEM degrees may get people higher starting salaries, Thompson says liberal arts majors are often tapped for high-paying leadership and management positions later in their careers.
Given the number of open jobs currently available in Kentucky and projected for the future, Thompson says the state will need STEM and liberal arts majors.
“It’s a both and, it’s not an either or,” he says. “Both are important to get what we need. Even those that are in technical education will need to know how to communicate, will need to know how to problem solve… will need to know all those things that we argue that good liberal arts bring you.”
An Education System That Works for All Students
Thompson is intimately familiar with many of the educational challenges young Kentuckians face. He is a first generation high-school graduate, born in Clay County to an illiterate coal-miner father, and a mother who only had an eighth-grade education. He went on to get a doctorate in sociology from the University of Kentucky and worked in business for ten years. He got into academia as a professor and later as an administrator before joining CPE.
Now as president of the council, Thompson wants to ensure that higher education in the commonwealth works for both the students who come from wealthy, educated families, and those who have backgrounds similar to his own.
“We need to actually raise the bar for all of our students,” he says. “We need to make sure all of our students can achieve – those that are the highest of academic achievers to those that are in fact trying to become a part of the academic endeavor.”
The council worked with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s Business-Education Roundtable to develop a list of priorities for improving workforce quality in the commonwealth. Thompson says those priorities include 1. investing in early childhood education and preschool, 2.making high school diplomas more relevant to today’s economy, 3. ensuring all adults get a marketable credential or degree, and 4. engaging employers in workforce development. See the full report.
Even though his focus is higher education, Thompson says he also wants to help even the youngest Kentuckians get on the pathway to a good job that will provide them success as an adult.
“We have to understand how to align students with the career choice that’s good for them,” he says. “That’s why we need to start doing it earlier versus later.”
That includes strong early childhood education, which research shows can reduce the likelihood of a youngster being poor and requiring public assistance when they grow up. Thompson says Kentucky needs universal pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year olds. He says the stronger educational foundation children have, the better prepared they will be for academic success in high school and in college.
“Early childhood matters,” says Thompson. “If I was asking for one thing for higher ed, I would say that we really create a wonderful pre-school program in Kentucky… because that gets to me sooner or later.”
Even if every toddler today becomes an occupational-certificate or college-degree holder in the future, Kentucky still won’t meet the 60 percent goal the CPE has set for postsecondary attainment. Thompson says the council is also working to help adults who have 80 or 90 college-credit hours go back to school and complete their degrees. He says there are more than 500,000 Kentuckians with existing college credits or prior learning experiences who could become degree-holders if they received the proper assistance.