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CPE data shows college graduation, retention rates continue to climb; costs remain steady across state

Despite a spring semester marred by COVID-19, graduation and retention rates continued to climb at Kentucky’s public universities last year, and the net cost of attending college has held mostly steady across the state.

The latest data from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education shows that the six-year graduation rate at four-year public universities reached 56.4% in the 2019-20 academic year. That’s up from 55% the year prior and from 50.6% five years ago. Graduation rates for both low-income and underrepresented minority students (URM) showed improvement.

In total, five of Kentucky’s eight public universities increased their graduation rates in 2019-20 while also exceeding strategic targets for next year.

At the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, the three-year graduation rate also surpassed strategic goals, rising to 36.3% in 2019-20, compared to 33.9% a year ago and 26.8% five years ago. Low-income and URM students are continuing to experience gains at KCTCS, with the graduation rate steadily increasing over the last five years.

CPE President Aaron Thompson said the results are a testament to the leadership on Kentucky campuses during one of the most challenging years in memory. He also praised campus leaders for their commitment to advancing equity and inclusion and supporting students who face financial struggles.

“The pandemic struck at the worst possible time for many of last year’s graduating seniors,” he said. “However, our campuses held tight to their values and showed tremendous adaptability in their response to the crisis. Thanks to their efforts, the majority of our students stayed on track for graduation last spring, and our undergraduates continued to maintain momentum.”

The average second-year retention rate at public universities also climbed in 2019-20, topping out at 80.7%. That’s up from 78.2% from the previous year and from 76.3% in 2015-16. All eight campuses chalked up gains in retention with much of the progress occurring among low-income and URM students.

Retention among URM students increased 6.5 percentage points year-over-year, while it rose 4.4 percentage points among students with low incomes.

At KCTCS, the retention rate climbed to 57.1% last year compared to 55.5% in 2018-19, also with increases among low-income and minority students.

The rates are up at a time when the cost for students has remained relatively flat. For instance, the net price for students at Kentucky’s research institutions decreased an average of 1% in 2018-19 compared to the prior year. It fell an average 5.7% at the state’s comprehensive universities during the same time.

Net price includes all the typical costs related to attending college, such as tuition, fees, meals, books and housing, minus any federal, state or institutional aid that students receive.

Campus leaders, along with CPE’s data team, presented campus and state numbers to council members last week, and CPE expects to release more details and analysis later this month in its annual progress report.

David Mahan, associate vice president of data, research and advanced analytics at CPE, said the data will help inform CPE’s new strategic agenda, which officials will begin developing this month.

“We’ve seen impressive headway over the past five years, and it’s clear that our strategic plan is helping move the needle,” Mahan said. “Also, graduation and retention rates are an important gauge of all our student success metrics, so we are hopeful they point to even more progress ahead.”

In other action last week, the Council:

• Re-elected Ben Brandstetter as council chair and Kim Halbauer as council vice-chair for 2021.

• Adopted a resolution honoring Michael V. Carter, who has served as president of Campbellsville University since 1999 and recently announced his retirement. During his tenure, the university grew from 1,600 to 13,500 students and from 74 to 200 full-time faculty. He also presided over a 650 percent increase in the university’s budget and a 400 percent increase in its endowment.

• Amended the tuition and mandatory fee policy and tuition-setting timeline, along with the licensure fees for private colleges and the state authorization reciprocity agreement.

The Council also:

• Received comments and reports from President Thompson and Commissioner Jason Glass from the Kentucky Department of Education.

• Received an update on the 2021 legislative session from Greg Rush, CPE’s senior fellow and legislative liaison.

• Received reports from the Academic and Strategic Initiatives Committee, the Committee on Equal Opportunities, the Finance Committee, the Executive Committee and the Nominating Committee. The Council also received “good news” reports from campuses.

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