Higher education paying off for Kentuckians

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By Rick Rand

In the late 1990s, the state rolled out a simple but effective campaign summarized by two words: “Education pays.”

That popular slogan came on the heels of a landmark overhaul of our public postsecondary schools and the creation of such programs as KEES, the lottery-based college scholarships that high school students earn with good grades, and “Bucks for Brains,” which added hundreds of millions of state and private dollars to our university research budgets.

Last month, a study commissioned by the Council for Postsecondary Education and conducted by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Business and Economic Research confirmed that education really does pay – and in more ways than we may think.

Its most immediate impact, of course, can be seen among those who obtain a two- or four-year college degrees.  The former earns nearly 30 percent more than those with a high school diploma, while those with bachelor’s degrees bring home paychecks 51 percent larger, or about $14,470 extra a year on average.

Just as a postsecondary degree can increase salaries, it can also better shield against a downturn in the economy like we’ve seen in recent years.  Between 2009 and 2013, for example, the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree hovered just above four percent the entire time.  For those with a high school diploma, the rate fluctuated between 10 and 12 percent.

If our population saw the percentage of adults with two- and four-year college degrees rise to the national average, our state revenues would jump by as much as a half-billion dollars, according to the study.  

Right now, nearly half of our state income taxes come from households headed by someone with a bachelor’s or more advanced college degree, even though they make up a much smaller percentage of our population.

Getting to the national average in postsecondary education would help us in other ways as well.  There would be fewer people needing Medicaid, for example, saving as much as $200 million a year, and reductions in food stamps would total $99 million.

UK’s research also indicates savings in areas where education would not seem to be a direct factor.  Nonetheless, statistics show that crime would go down if we had a higher percentage of adults with a college degree, and there would be steep decreases in the number of heart attacks, strokes and those diagnosed with diabetes.

The good news is that our work to make education pay appears to be paying off.  September’s unemployment rate was the lowest we have seen in more than 14 years, and no state saw more success last year on average than we did when it comes to announcements of large economic development projects.  We averaged almost one a day, and they aren’t just in our cities, either.  

A Cabinet for Economic Development official told legislators earlier this month that a little more than half of the projects and investment announced over the past year are occurring in the rural parts of the state.

There is reason to believe these job trends will continue, since Gov. Beshear recently announced that Site Selection magazine ranked our business climate third among the states, up from eighth-best in 2014.

As we prepare for the upcoming legislative session, which starts in early January, we will be looking for other ways to make it easier for students and returning adults to earn a college diploma.  


If you have any thoughts on this matter, please let me know.  You can write to me at Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or you can email me at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov.