Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Stay the Course with Higher Education Reform

The Postsecondary Education Reform Act of 1997 is the most important economic development legislation this state enacted in the last decade. Therefore, we support and applaud the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce for their recent report, which encourages the Governor and General Assembly to forge ahead with the objectives of higher education reform.

The central theme of the reform was to use Kentucky’s higher education system to transform the state economy, with the overarching goal to achieve a per capita income that meets or exceed the national average by 2020. To accomplish this, the Council on Postsecondary Education created the “Double the Numbers” campaign to increase the number of Kentuckians with bachelor’s degrees by 2020.

While Kentucky has made progress, other states have also improved. Kentucky’s position relative to the national average has changed little over the past decade, the state’s per capita income as a percent of the national average remains about 82 percent.

Significant changes have taken place in the local higher education arena over the last decade, positioning Owensboro for a potential transformation of the regional economy. The reform has had a significant impact in the following three ways:

Double the Numbers Mandate- A decade ago colleges in Owensboro barely enrolled 3,000 students. A plan existed to build an advanced technology center and expand public higher education by relocating the local Western Kentucky University campus to the community college. In 2007 nearly 8,000 are enrolled in Owensboro-based colleges and universities and thanks to the leadership of the Daviess County Fiscal Court a new campus is planned for the expansion of WKU-O. And, as a result of the strong leadership of the presidents, all local colleges are doing their part to “Double the Numbers.” They recognize the role each institution plays in creating a vibrant and growing college environment where a rising tide lifts all boats. But we have a long way to go. Bachelor attainment rates are stagnant. Today only 22% of our working-aged adults have an associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degree—compared with 35% nationally. The aim is to match the national percentage in 13 years—this will require 10,000 new college degree holders by 2020, including 4,500 at the bachelor degree level.

Creation of Owensboro Community and Technical College- One of the greatest achievements of the reform has been the consolidation of the community colleges and technical schools through the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS). Since 1997, enrollments in KCTCS colleges have increased 106 percent. The enrollment in Owensboro has jumped to over 5,000 students. There is no better tool to improve the workforce and economic development of a community than a strong community college—and we have one of the best. From the enrollment of high school students through the Discover College program to the customized business and industry training delivered to area businesses, OCTC demonstrates why a strong comprehensive community college and programs such as the Advanced Technology Center is a top priority.

Bucks for Brains- The program to attract the highest possible level of talent to perform life changing research at Kentucky’s two research universities has been an overwhelming success. Bucks for Brains has pumped millions of dollars in research funding into the state’s economy and provided the impetus for economic development while changing the lives of people all around the world. This hits home here in Owensboro, where researchers from the University of Louisville are working on cutting edge cancer research using tobacco to provide vaccines in lesser developed countries to fight cervical cancer and HIV. The synergy between the Owensboro Cancer Research Program at OMHS, Kentucky Bioprocessing, and the University of Louisville is a great example of how university research and talent are the drivers in the 21st century economy.

The Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp. continues to play an active role in promoting and integrating the alignment of higher education with local economic development strategy, our work with the memorandum of agreement with WKU is but one example. Such alignment will position Owensboro to be on the cutting edge of the transformation of the state economy and increase the per capita income levels of our citizens as envisioned by the reform.

To Governor Beshear and members of the General Assembly, stay the course to improve access, provide financial assistance, and promote the alignment of schools, colleges, universities, and economic development agencies for the betterment of the Commonwealth. A tall order, but I cannot think of any more important to the future of Kentucky.

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