When Louisville and Jefferson County governments merged in 2003, city leaders commissioned a study to see how the metro area ranked against 14 competitor communities. Some of the results were disturbing: Louisville ranked in the bottom tier of cities for adults with high school diplomas, and next to last for people with bachelor’s degrees.
That Brookings Institution report inspired a civic initiative called 55,000 Degrees to help more Louisvillians attain college diplomas and provide the metro area employers with a better trained workforce. Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees, appeared on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw to discuss the project.
Setting a High Bar for Success
The initiative launched in 2010 with the goal of helping 55,000 Louisvillians attain a postsecondary degree by the year 2020. That would mean 50 percent of metro residents would have an associate or bachelor’s degree.
Wheeler says the project involves parents, students, educators, businesses, and other community partners to promote the value of higher education, and offers tools and support services to help individuals enter college and complete their degrees.
In December, the organization issued a progress report that showed there were some 22,000 new degree-holders since the initiative began. But Wheeler says at that pace, it will take the community until 2030 to reach its goal. She says one factor slowing the progress is the escalating cost of attending a college or university.
“Even though our degree completions have been on an upward swing,” Wheeler explains, “fewer people are going to college and we think that’s partly because of the question of the value of college.”
She says when the economy is sluggish, people return to school, especially community colleges, to learn a new skill. Then when the economy improves, many of those students return to the workforce whether they’ve completed a degree or not. To illustrate her point, Wheeler notes there are 94,000 adults in Jefferson County who have some college credit hours but no degree. She says a new initiative called Degrees Matter will target that population to help those individuals finish their studies and get a diploma.
Changing Workforce Needs
Although Louisville has a long history as a center of heavy manufacturing drawing on a blue-collar workforce, Wheeler says local employers now need a new set of advanced skills. In 2008, she says only 38 percent of jobs required a postsecondary degree. By 2018, Wheeler says that figure jumps to more than 60 percent.
“The demand for the level of education is much higher in our workplace,” Wheeler says. “The skills are more digital, much more critical thinking and problem solving.”
Wheeler says part of the 55,000 Degrees project involves encouraging employers to work more closely with local educators so they can tailor their curricula to the workforce skills that local business and industry need. She also says 60 Louisville employers have joined the initiative and pledge to support their school-going workers with things like tuition reimbursement, flexible work hours, and child care assistance.
Building an Education Mindset from an Early Age
Another facet of 55,000 Degrees is instilling in students as young as elementary and preschool the idea that they can achieve a postsecondary degree.
“We know that that mindset makes a big deal of difference,” Wheeler says. “They know that college is important… but do they that they are headed to college?”
She says they also have intervention strategies to keep middle and high school students on a college track. To address the costs of higher education, Wheeler encourages students to explore all financial aid options and to apply for grants, scholarships, and loans as early as possible. She explains that it’s important to align one’s career goals with the expense of attaining a degree related to that field.
“Some degrees pay more than others,” Wheeler says. “When you think about taking out that loan, it’s almost always a very good investment, but you need to right-size the loan to the kind of salary that you might be able to get.”
View a series of videos about 55,000 Degrees, or watch Wheeler discuss the importance of college degrees in a TEDx talk. Also read about a part of the 55,000 Degrees effort for African-Americans in Jefferson County.