My hope for Kentucky: Closing achievement gaps for better lives, brighter futures

Learning Never Ends written on rural road

Dr. Aaron Thompson

As an African-American growing up in poverty in rural southeastern Kentucky, the chances of continuing my education beyond high school, much less continuing through to a doctoral degree, were slim. Not only was I a first-generation college student, I was a first-generation high school student. Fortunately, I had parents who instilled in me the value of education, the value of work, and the insatiable desire to achieve.

My mother, the academic in the family with an eighth-grade education, taught me that education would give me a sustainable income and would be my route out of poverty. My father, an illiterate coal miner and a tenant farmer, believed that an education would provide the opportunity to choose my path in life. His words still echo: “Son, do all you can do – no matter what – to get an education.”

As both a researcher and as a person who has lived this journey, I know it is often difficult for low-income and underrepresented minority students to attain a higher education credential or degree. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done; it simply means that extra supports at the campus level are often needed.

And that’s why as a native Kentuckian and as someone who has been in higher education over the last several decades, I can promise you this: I’m not any more proud of my state and our campuses as I am now.

That’s because Kentucky has intensified efforts to help all students succeed, particularly our low-income and underrepresented minority students, with the Council on Postsecondary Education’s approval of the statewide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policy. It is this policy that provided the framework for public colleges and universities to develop and implement diversity plans to increase the success of underrepresented minority and low-income students, as well as creating a more inclusive environment and producing more culturally competent graduates.

Even though Kentucky has made significant progress in educational attainment, it is still alarming that our low-income and underrepresented minority students who choose to attend college are having difficulty staying in college to earn a certificate or a degree.

Today, in my role at the Council on Postsecondary Education, I am extremely fortunate to help lead the charge so that more disenfranchised students can achieve their dreams. But many face obstacles that lead to achievement gaps, which are different levels of performance between different groups of students, such as students from higher-income households compared to students from lower-income households, and between minority and majority students.

Just consider the data. Statewide, 51.3 percent of first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree students who enter a public college ready to take credit-bearing courses complete a degree within six years, compared to 37.1 percent of low-income students and 37.4 percent of minority students. The success rates for these populations at the 16 colleges of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System are even lower.

Closing achievement gaps in Kentucky is mission critical. This doesn’t mean that we will hinder the growth of our high achievers; it means that we are doubling down on our efforts to help all students cross the finish line with a credential or degree. In cooperation with our campuses, we are committed to giving every student the opportunity to enter and succeed in college.

Just like my parents knew decades ago, there is tremendous value in an education. College graduates earn higher incomes, and contribute more to the state and federal coffers by paying higher income taxes, which in turn, helps pay for essential government services. College graduates are much less likely to be on public assistance, incarcerated or unemployed. They are more likely to vote, volunteer and have better health. Further, more students earning high-demand workforce credentials, from all demographics and including our adult students, will help build a highly skilled and productive workforce that will drive a stronger economy.

I am blessed being a Kentuckian, an Appalachian and African-American. Most of all, I am blessed being an educator with an opportunity to be a part of the solution. I ask that you join with me and be a part of the solution. Just know that regardless of a parent’s level of income, education or the color of their skin, their children will need at least a high-demand workforce credential to earn a sustainable income. Your job and my job as native or adoptive children of Kentucky is to make our great commonwealth even greater by instilling in every child that it is their right to be successful.

Dr. Aaron Thompson is the executive vice president and chief academic officer for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.