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As College Enrollment Falls, Kentucky’s Graduate Rate Is Rising

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  College graduation rates are rising in Kentucky despite declining enrollment at institutions of higher education. That means more students who start college in Kentucky are making it to graduation day with a bachelor’s degree within six years.

Colleges across Kentucky awarded more than 23,000 bachelor’s degrees last school year.  New data released by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education show the 6-year graduation rate for bachelor’s degrees in Kentucky has risen by about 4 percentage points over the past three years. 

“That’s super significant because we are doing a better job at retaining and graduating more students,” said David Mahan, Associate Vice President of Data for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. “Of the students that do come to us, we’re doing a better job, and it’s not because academic rigor has changed.”

Associate degree completion is also rising among 2-year public community colleges in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, college enrollment is dropping in Kentucky. Mahan explained that the overall high school population has become stagnant and is projected to decline. At the same time, fewer adults are going back to school today than a decade ago.

“The adult decline is significant,” Mahan said. “Since the year of the recession [in 2008-09], we have decreased from over 70,000 adults to about 40,000 adults in Kentucky [colleges and] universities.”

The Council has set a goal for 60 percent of Kentuckians to hold a degree by 2030. Meeting that target will require the number of degree completions to grow by about 1.7 percent each year. Last year, Kentucky colleges met that incremental goal. 

Mahan said colleges that want to continue that growth should focus on recruiting adult students. 

Student demographics are also changing. The number of degrees being awarded to students of color has been on a steady rise for the past 10 years.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re getting more diversity in our enrollment and we’re graduating more of those students,” Mahan said, crediting those changes to overall demographic change and to colleges doing a better job of recruiting minority students.

The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education publishes a variety of interactive data tables annually that describe changes in higher education demographics and degree attainment.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.
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