Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

BOOSTING COLLEGE GRADUATION RATES IN THE BLUEGRASS STATE by 2020 Focusing on a Public/private Initiative

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

BOOSTING COLLEGE GRADUATION RATES IN THE BLUEGRASS STATE by 2020 Focusing on a Public/private Initiative

Article excerpt

A public and private partnership created the 55,000 Degrees initiative - adding 40,000 bachelor's and 15,000 associate degrees by 2020, with the goal of turning Louisville into a more competitive city, prepared for a 21st-century knowledge economy.

Hispanics and African-Americans are also being highlighted because the Latino population in Louisville, though a modest 3.8 percent of the population, has doubled over the last decade and will likely increase. African-Americans have had problems achieving college success, with only 14 percent in Louisville graduating with a postsecondary degree, a rate about half that of its White students. Hence, Louisville is focusing on helping minority and majority students succeed in college.

55,000 Degrees brings together school superintendents, college and university presidents and civic leaders in Louisville to collaborate on a strategy to increase college graduation rates. Its goals included making college affordable, encouraging business leaders to get involved and serve as mentors with colleges, and creating a college-minded culture in which larger numbers of students advance to higher education in Kentucky.

Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees, said its leadership identified several clear objectives, including: 1) overcoming any barriers to establishing a college achieving culture, 2) engaging the business community to help reach adults who haven't achieved degrees, 3) increasing access and affordability, 4) improving college alignment of K- 12 grades with higher education.

Like many former manufacturing centers, Louisville faced a number of plant closings including those of Ford and General Electric. "Having a high school diploma is no longer good enough" to secure employment, Wheeler noted.

Creating a public and private partnership can help sustain the initiative, said James Applegate, vice president for program development at the Lumina Foundation, a leader in funding programs to raise Hispanic college graduation. The initiative transcends the tenure of any mayor or college president and encourages influential leaders in the community to work together toward common goals. "Without college completion, we're creating a generation of working poor," he said.

The impetus for establishing 55,000 degrees began in 2003 when the city of Louisville merged with nearby suburban Jefferson County. The newly merged city, whose combined population was 741,000 in 2010, compared Louisville's performance with that of 1 5 similar cities and determined that it was in the bottom tier of educational achievement. And that reality could hamper its economic progress.

In 2009, Mayor Jerry E. Abramson, now Kentucky's lieutenant governor, invited the leaders of Louisville to a retreat and encouraged them to establish a plan to increase college achievement. The 55,000 Degrees resulted from those meetings.

The initiative works closely with eight colleges in Louisville, including six fouryear colleges, including the University of Louisville and nearby Indiana University, and community colleges Jefferson Community and Technical College and Ivy Tech Community College.

It serves as a rallying point for all the colleges to increase outreach to students and gain the support of business leaders. But it has a modest budget, $400,000, supported by local foundations, only three full-time employees and is not a funding source. It doesn't provide services but tries to motivate colleges to offer resources and outreach to students and then measure the results, Wheeler said. For example, it launched Count Me In, a program that encourages parents and other organizations to make a pledge to increase college graduation.

Wheeler noted that the low levels of African-American academic achievement "mirrors national numbers and reflects that African-Americans tend to be low-income and raised in families with low college achievement." The Latino population is gaining a foothold in Louisville and is beginning to organize itself. …

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