As 55K Sunsets, Fight for Equity and Affordability in Postsecondary Education Continues

By Mary Gwen Wheeler, Executive Director || 

*This post was published as an op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal on August 21, 2020.

A decade ago, our community set an ambitious goal: by 2020, half of Louisville’s working-age adults would have a college degree.  

Although we didn’t achieve the goal, we can be proud that we’ve added more than 39,000 degrees in the city and increased from 39 to 45.5 the percentage of adults with an associate’s degree or higher. More Louisvillians are graduating high school than in 2010 and, of those who start college, more are completing their degrees or credentials. We’ve used data to measure progress and home in on key gaps or system “leaks.” What’s more, by aligning business, education, philanthropy, government and civic groups around a common goal, we have built our collaborative muscle as a community and learned to work across sectors and institutions to effect change.     

Even as we close out the 55,000 Degrees initiative and celebrate this progress, we must confront what went wrong in this decade: College became less affordable, and the number of Jefferson County Public Schools graduates going to college fell. Our postsecondary schools have improved greatly in guiding their students toward completion, but cost increases have convinced ever more Louisville students that college is not for them. 

If our students don’t go to college, education cannot be “the great equalizer” for our divided society. To move the needle on education and transform our future workforce, Louisville must address root causes of inadequate and racialized student outcomes. We must break down systemic barriers of poverty, institutional racism and cost that have put the life-changing opportunity of a postsecondary credential or degree out of reach for most low- and many middle-income students. 

Consider these statistics: 

  • Across the 10 years of the 55,000 Degrees initiative, rising tuition costs drove a decline in college enrollment and an alarming increase in student debt. Only 53 percent of Jefferson County Public School’s class of 2019 enrolled in college, compared to 67 percent in 2009.    
  • From 2008 through 2020, tuition costs increased 51 percent at Kentucky’s public two-year colleges, 71 percent at public four-year regional campuses, and 73 percent at public four-year research campuses. Who has picked up the difference for those who attend? Students and their families.  
  • In the pandemic, it’s clear who struggles the most to even attend. Enrollment of underrepresented minorities at Jefferson Community and Technical College for the fall 2020 semester was down 27 percent, according to a recent story in the Courier-Journal. This was so concerning that Jefferson implemented a grant to cover full tuition for any first-time student from one of these groups. 
  • Our students and their families are getting discouraged. In a recent poll conducted by the Prichard Committee, 77 percent of Kentuckians said tuition is too high and a third of the state believes a four-year degree isn’t worth the cost.  

These trends are worrying. We know that most living-wage jobs of the future will require some education beyond high school, and that postsecondary education increases earnings potential and life outcomes. But the high cost of college amplifies privileges of class and race and exacerbates existing inequities. Because poverty is so closely tied to race, there is a stark disparity in attainment among races — particularly for African Americans — that will not close until systems change.  

The good news is, we know where to go from here. The lessons we’ve learned over the last 10 years with 55,000 Degrees – the successes and the failures along the way – led our community to create Evolve502 and the Evolve502 Promise Scholarship to provide the access, opportunity and funding that are so important in addressing inequities in the education system. Evolve502 is the shovel-ready, transformational solution to close equity gaps in education. With the scholarship, every graduate of JCPS will have the opportunity to go to Simmons College or a Kentucky Community and Technical College, including Jefferson, tuition-free for two years. That means every JCPS graduate would have the chance to earn a technical credential, workforce certification, or associate’s degree.  

This week, Evolve502 announced its first scholarships for the incoming class of 2021. University of Louisville added to the good news, promising the neediest of those Evolve502 Scholars an additional two years of free tuition at UofL once they have completed an associate’s degree. That means a life-changing college degree is in reach for every senior starting school next week. It’s a proud moment for our partnership as we see the hard work our community has put into postsecondary education culminate in the promise of access for these JCPS seniors. These scholarships create hope for the many Louisville families that would otherwise not be able to afford a college education – at a time when hope and good news are so sorely needed.  

As we move through the economic and social challenges of our current times, let’s not let up on our goal of creating a more equitable and educated Louisville. Let’s invest in Evolve502 and our community. Let’s bring the promise of tuition-free college to all JCPS students, kindergarten through high school. Now is the time to give every child in Louisville the opportunity for a productive and successful life. 

Mary Gwen Wheeler is Executive Director 55,000 Degrees and has spent her career championing education. She has served on the Kentucky Board of Education, as Louisville Metro Government’s Secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and Senior Advisor to the Mayor on Education and Youth. She is currently a member of the Evolve502 Scholarship Foundation Board of Directors. 55,000 Degrees is public-private, multi-sector partnership started in 2010 to increase higher education attainment in Louisville. The 10-year initiative sunsets this year.  

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