55,000 Degrees

Although winter weather has descended upon Louisville and will almost certainly be around through February, the temperature here is surprisingly high. In fact, it’s 55,000 degrees! An innovative public-private partnership launched last year, 55,000 Degrees is a collaborative effort in the Louisville area to raise the number of college degree holders in town by 55,000 by 2020. Specifically, the goal is to have 40,000 more bachelor’s degree holders and 15,000 more with associate’s degrees. Another objective is for 15,000 of the total number to be earned by African-Americans.

Why the target of 55,000 degrees?  In partnership with the Brookings Institution, the Greater Louisville Project released the first of its annual Competitive Cities Reports in 2005, which compares Louisville with peer cities of similar size in the three key areas referred to as “deep drivers” for economic competitiveness:  education, jobs and quality of place. Despite Louisville’s other high rankings, Louisville was in the unique position of ranking low in the number of degree holders but had the most residents of any peer city with some hours of college credit. Community leaders could see the amazing potential if those adults who began college but left to raise children, care for elderly parents or accept full-time employment were encouraged to return to school and earn their degrees.

At the end of its first year, 55,000 Degrees published its first progress report, and the results are very encouraging. From 2008–2009, the last year for which numbers are available, the number of working-age adults with degrees jumped by roughly 7,000. This represents a 14 percent jump in associate’s degrees and a seven percent jump in bachelor’s degrees in just one year. All 21 of the institutions of higher education in the Greater Louisville area reported an increase in degrees awarded, and there was a 20 percent increase in the number of working-age adults in Louisville who chose to go back to school. 

Despite the exciting numbers, community leaders recognize that even similar gains each year won’t get us to the 55,000 benchmark by 2020. Even more needs to be done. A partnership between 55K, Jefferson County Public Schools and Louisville Metro Government is expanding the Close the Deal initiative that helps high school seniors apply to, access financial aid for and prepare to enter college. Likewise, 55K is working with Greater Louisville, Inc., our local chamber of commerce, to implement a new program to assist businesses in helping their employees go back to school. Yes, the future looks bright . . . and the temperature in Derby City is definitely rising!

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