Aaron Thompson on Higher Ed in Kentucky

by John Gregory | 04/14/14 2:42 PM

Aaron Thompson could be considered a classic example of the power of education to change a life. The sociologist, author, and motivational speaker was born in a three-room sharecropper's cabin in Clay County and rose to become executive vice president and chief academic officer for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE).

Thompson shared his life story and his views on academic issues in Kentucky today on this weekend's Connections with Renee Shaw.

The youngest of nine children, Thompson was the son of an illiterate coal miner and a mother who had an eighth-grade education. Yet his parents taught him the value of an education as a way to escape poverty. Thompson says he had no idea where he wanted to go-he just knew he didn't want to be poor.

"Even though we are a society that offers upward mobility, what we have is that if you're born poor, the likelihood that you'll stay poor is greater," Thompson says. He contends this leads not only to a disparity in incomes but to gaps in educational attainment as well.

Helping Students of All Ages
Instead of blaming primary and secondary school teachers, Thompson says the CPE must work more collaboratively with K-12 educators to help them better prepare Kentucky youth for college. One part of that is ensuring all classrooms-not just the schools with the most money-have access to skilled and talented teachers. He also says educators should teach both critical thinking and creative thinking skills to help students improve their problem-solving abilities.

Since the Kentucky Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997 revamped higher education in the state, Thompson says local colleges and universities have made tremendous gains. "Our institutions are some of the best institutions for higher learning in the nation," he explains. "So I would argue that if you're looking for good education at a reasonable cost, you would stay in this state."

But he cautions that recent rounds of state budget cuts threaten those accomplishments, both in terms of the programs schools can offer, and the tuition and fees charged to students. He says the CPE is negotiating with Gov. Steve Beshear and the individual institutions to determine what tuition increases may be needed to cover the 1.5 percent budget reduction higher education faces in the next biennium.

Watch the full Connections program.