Three Strategies that Moved the Needle in Kentucky

Pages from Kentucky_Lumina060614With its commitment to higher education reform and measurable, systemic goals that have proven attainable, Kentucky has become a model for other states. Though there are many reasons for the success, three key factors stand out: strong leadership for whom education is a top priority, clearly defined goals and smart financial aid programs designed to educate and engage students and their families. By applying these factors on a consistent basis, other states could follow suit and see similar improvements to their own educational systems. Read the full brief here.


Kentucky’s story begins with the Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997 that created actual measurable goals for the state. Chief among these goals was increasing the level of postsecondary education completion in Kentucky’s work force. Largely because of this reform, Kentucky’s proportion of adults holding these credentials has increased relative to state population and compared to the national average. Other results include an increased proportion of adults with higher education, improved average bachelor’s degree graduation rates and an improved average of community college graduation rates. When comparing these results to other states, it is important to address the major points of the 1997 reform and its context.

Kentucky has excelled at putting its commitment to higher education outcomes in the public eye. Every May or June the state’s Council on Postsecondary Education sends out a press release announcing public and private college graduation rates within the state. The media follows up the press release with articles updating the public on the year’s statistics and comparing previous years’ rates. The existence of these articles demonstrates the success Kentucky has had emphasizing the importance of focusing on the outcome of its education reform by not only keeping the public informed of improvements in graduation rates, but also increasing the public’s investment in their state’s postsecondary education system.

Although the reform act is generally considered a major impetus for the improvements in Kentucky, there were added positive conditions in place that might impede other states’ attempts at emulating Kentucky’s success. As mentioned above, Kentucky had strong leadership in place in the form of a two-term governor who made postsecondary education his most important policy issue and was willing to trade political capital on controversial, but important, provisions. Consistent and clear goals were adhered to, good questions were asked and those involved were focused on outcomes rather than micromanagement. And compared with policies in many other states, Kentucky’s approach to student aid was much better engineered to improve completion and attainment rates.

Despite the concentration Kentucky put on postsecondary education reform, the experiment did not result in an overabundance of spending. State spending on higher education did increase on an absolute level but declined on a per-student basis, and, although tuition increased significantly between 1997 and today, other factors, including the recession of 2008, could be responsible for this.

To this day, Kentucky continues to innovate in higher education, both at a state level and at its dynamic, growing institutions. However, there are continuing challenges that this and every state attempting reform must face. Kentucky’s success is a lesson in the complexity of higher education and the importance of committing to clear cut and well-thought-out goals.