Kentucky lacks college degrees, ranks low in adult education

Aug 11, 2021 | News

By Kae Holloway

The clock ticked to 3 p.m. on a cool Saturday afternoon. Bradley Moore’s room door in his grandparents’ basement remained shut, a sign that he was still sleeping despite the late hour. It isn’t until closer to dinner time that he emerges, saying little between bites until he retreats back to his room where he’ll spend the rest of the evening playing video games.

Bradley, 19, recently graduated from East Carter County High School in Carter County, Kentucky and has since decided to not pursue college. Currently, there’s not a career track he’s interested in, and until he finds one of interest, he doesn’t want to spend the money.

He sleeps in, hangs around his grandparents’ house where he lives and occasionally goes out with friends. He had a job in Mt. Sterling at a factory for a time and lived with his dad. He quit that to move to Louisville with his mom. He left there to move in with his grandparents in Carter County. He said he, his friends and people he went to class with don’t really care about college. People don’t really want to leave here either.

The latter sentiment is echoed by his grandmother, Alberta, who has confidence that her grandson will go to college once he knows what he wants to do. Trying to force someone to go who doesn’t want to is ineffective, kind of like “pushing a rope,” she says. It’s also her belief that there’s no point in paying for general education classes if you don’t know what you want to do. She thinks her grandson would make a great history teacher. He doesn’t have interest in it.

“It costs a lot of money to do something that won’t end up getting you anywhere,” she says.

Until then, she says he seeks knowledge about anything that piques his interest on his own terms.

Bradley is not alone in his desire to skip the college route. According to 2013 census data, Carter County ranks as only of the lowest in the state for educational attainment with only 10 percent of adult residents completing four-year degree programs. Kentucky itself ranks 47th in the nation for educational attainment. Roughly 22 percent of adults age 25 and over in the state have a bachelor’s degree.

“Kentucky’s one of the lowest in the nation, of course we’re not the lowest, so thank goodness for all these others,” said Charlene Manco, director of the Educational Opportunity Center at Western Kentucky University. Manco’s office works specifically with first generation college students living below the poverty level in nine counties in the western part of the state.

Broken down across the counties, the areas with the lowest number of college graduates are generally the poorest and have high unemployment rates, according to maps compiled by the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky, which conducts surveys on many areas of the state economy and related issues, including education.

Carter County, nestled in the hills of northeast part of the state with a population of just over 25,000, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at 12 percent.

It’s a toss up around here whether people see the need for college, but they especially don’t see the need to leave, according to Alberta Moore, who’s lived and raised her family in the area since the 1980s. Some, like Bradley, don’t want to spend the money when they don’t know what to do. Others go to school, but they end up doing nothing with it because the county lacks job opportunity, Alberta said.

“Honestly a lot of parents instill in these children that they can never leave home,” she said. “They do want their children to be educated, but they don’t want them to go anywhere to get that better job.”

Alberta also believes part of the factor in low educational attainment could be that high schools like East Carter don’t prepare their students for college well enough. In fact, 71 percent of students entering any of the schools in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System need some form of remedial coursework.

Many programs now exist in attempt to reach and aid students who need more assistance to finish college, obtain their GED certificate or both. For the last five years, the Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges System has offered Accelerating Opportunity KY at all 16 of their colleges across the state.

The program helps prospective students who didn’t finish high school complete at least two college-level courses while working toward getting their GED certificate. Students enrolled in the program are low income, low-skill students who didn’t finish high school. It puts them on a faster track to earn college credits toward a “family sustaining job,” according to the Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges System.

Chrisha Spears said students in the program never thought they would or could go to college. Spears is the coordinator of Accelerating Opportunity at Ashland Community and Technical College, just 30 minutes outside of Carter County in Ashland, Kentucky.

At Ashland Community College, program courses are all geared toward careers in the healthcare field. The goal is ultimately to get students prepared to get a job at one of the nearby hospitals by providing skills training and getting them enough certifications to qualify.

Currently, there are 15 students in the program enrolled at Ashland. They all go to every class together, every clinical, every study hall together. They’ve formed a cohort that Spears says helps with accountability. If someone’s not there, if someone needs help, there’s 14 other people around them ready to help — 15 if they count Spears, who actively works with the group in advising and counseling.

Rachel Grubb, 25, will be the first student to graduate college through the Ashland program. Grubb, a single mother of two kids ages 1 and 3, will graduate with her associate degree in nursing in May.

Raising her kids while taking classes wasn’t difficult.

“It’s pretty easy,” she said. “You just have to study and keep your home life separate from your school life.”

Grubb said she always knew she wanted to go to school, but her low ACT scores kept her from being eligible to enroll. This program, however, only requires students to either have proof they left high school between ages 16 to 18 or proof that they never enrolled in college classes.

“It definitely got me interested in college and made me know that I could do it, “ she said.

Stephanie Banner, 63, is another AOKY student. She’s restarting her college career after over three decades away from studies.

Banner, a native of Belize, took college courses toward nursing while still living in her home country. However, family issues left her raising her younger siblings. She loves her family, but felt her opportunity was taken away.

She moved to the United States in 2010 and never stopped dreaming of returning to school and becoming a nurse.

Her dream was realized in 2014 when she found the Accelerating Opportunity program, which helped her obtain her GED so she could go to nursing school. She had to start from the beginning because of differences in schooling between the US and Belize, and her years out of the classroom. Upon degree completion, Banner will work as a nurse for local hospitals near Carter County.

“She’s doing this because she wants to, not because she has to,” Spears said of Banner.

By 2020, an estimated 62 percent of jobs in Kentucky will require further education after GED certification or completion of high school.

With the disparity between college and high school educated adults, and a growing skills gap problem, this statistic has many in the state worried, including Sen. Mike Wilson, a Republican from Warren County. Wilson said 950 jobs in Warren County alone remain open because the state lacks qualified workers.

Wilson, however, doesn’t believe that four-year education programs are the fix to this problem. Many of the jobs that remain open require two-year technical degrees, such as mechanic and welding positions. He blames pushes to get students to obtain four-year degrees for leaving a lack of vocationally trained young adults pursuing career tracks through two-year technical programs.

He says he’s not trying to disparage four-year programs and those who seek that path, but people working in mechanical and technical positions retiring, and companies that hired them are turning elsewhere to replace them because Kentucky lacks applicants.

“We’re really behind the eight ball on this,” he said. “We continue to attract companies, but can’t supply them with skilled labor.”

These positions pay well, but students just aren’t made as aware of two-year track technical programs, he says.

There’s correlation between earning power and completing some form of post-secondary education or training, according to the educational attainment research from Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky.

The earning rate of Kentuckians with just some college, meaning two-year degree programs or those who enrolled and dropped out, is on average $4,000 more than someone with just a high school degree or GED certificate. Kentuckians with bachelor’s degrees earn on average at least $30,000 more than the others, according to 2015’s Annual Kentucky Economic Report conducted by the University of Kentucky.

“Education pays,” Ashley Spalding, a policy analyst for higher education at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said. “To get most jobs these days some amount of higher education is needed.”

Jen McKellar has a rhythm as she bounces between customers at Bowling Green’s White Squirrel on a slow Sunday in the middle of the afternoon. Brunch ended hours ago, and her bar is partially filled with people looking for drinks and an early dinner.

“Have you ever had your Patron shots with orange?” she asks a couple, sliding two clear shot glasses of tequila their way. “I don’t like limes, so I always take mine with an orange.”

McKellar, 25, calls herself the last original bartender at White Squirrel Brewery in Bowling Green, which celebrates one year of business this May. McKellar picked up the job to try and help with financial problems she was having paying for school, but ultimately the second bartending gig — she also worked at the Cigar Bar — didn’t help.

She left Western Kentucky University, and her progress toward a biology degree, after spring of 2015 because she couldn’t afford to pay tuition. She claims her inability to get more loans caused the school to kick her out for non-payment. She says she’s more than $30,000 in debt, and she doesn’t have a degree to show for it.

She doesn’t want school to be free. She’s willing to pay. She just wants to be able to afford it. She’s still going to try to save and go back, but saving enough isn’t easy. Right now, her paychecks mainly go toward paying off her loans, not paying for future semesters of tuition.

McKellar’s ultimate goal is to be able to afford going to college in Boulder, Colorado, and complete a program in animal microbiology. She wants to work in a lab that tests treatments for animals.

“I’ve worked my ass off to pay for school and I still got kicked out because I didn’t have the money for it,” she says.

“Bernie will give you free college!” Two women, proudly sporting “Feel the Bern” stickers, interject in unison. McKellar doesn’t acknowledge them.

Her plan for months has been to move to Cincinnati in April to live with her boyfriend and work at three different bars in the area to make more money.

“When are you ever going to leave?” A man interjects as he approaches the bar.

“Tuesday, Tom!” she responds.

“You’re never going to leave!” he says, tacking on an order for a Pale Ale.

“I’m leaving. I’m leaving, Tom,” she says.

She laughs, pours his draft and takes his tip.

McKellar and her plans are well known by regular customers at White Squirrel. She’s talked for six months about moving to Cincinnati to make more money, even though she only wants to live there for a year before hopefully moving to Colorado.

“I did give a really long notice, and I can’t keep my own secret,” she says. “I’m really bad about that.”

Clay Jones, 37, doesn’t think highly of the twenty-somethings he’s taking classes with as a non-traditional student.

Going back to school now in his late thirties, after a tour of duty in Iraq, he sees that some of the younger students he’s surrounded by think similarly to how he did when he attended Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia for a short stint.

He was a recent high school graduate at the time and spent a year “majoring in beer and girls, and a little bit of reefer” before getting suspended and enlisting in the Army.

“I pretty much pissed away a $20,000 education for that year,” he says.

Because of this he partly understands the younger students, but he’s not patient with it. Traditional students he’s around, according to him, have no drive, no ambition and no honor. He blames it partly on them having parents or grants to pay for their schools.

He also blames it on the same beer and parties that he got caught up with.

“They’re a bunch of babies,” he says. “I’m there to learn because this is my one shot, my one and only shot. They take it as a joke.”

He’s been at Western for about a year now studying to get into the paramedic program. Two days a week he drives over two hours to get to class in Bowling Green from Columbia where he, his wife, his children and his grandchildren live. He switches between that drive and the drive to Cumberland County for his EMT shifts, which normally last 24 hours unless he picks up an additional shift.

It took him a while to find the paramedics program after he left the service, but he said it ended up being a good fit.

As a combat lifesaver, which is the Army equivalent of an EMT, Jones spent his time in the Middle East trying to save, and at times losing, lives. Those years introduced the self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie to a new fix — the rush that comes with trying to save another’s life.

Injuries to his ears, knees and several other parts of his body after exposure to explosions while in Iraq with the Army ultimately sent him home. Physical injuries were not the only damaging part of his tour. The weight of what he witnessed hangs in the pauses he takes retelling what he can about his tour of duty.

“When I was in Iraq, I lost a real good friend of mine,” he said.

He held his friend in his arms as he felt the life slip away. It was one of many lives he could not save.

““(I was) doing everything I can to save him, but there’s not an ice cube’s chance in Hell of saving him,” he adds.

It was something that also made him more adamant about learning how to save lives.

After returning home, he worked “dead end” jobs until he remembered, after increased frustration with his current prospects, that he loved trying to save lives in Iraq, despite the ones he had lost. There was a thrill involved knowing he could save somebody, and he was prepared if he ultimately couldn’t.

He quickly got his EMT certification. Two years later, he started classes to get into the paramedic program. He wanted to be the one trying to save lives again

.“It would make me happy,” he said.

He has to test in June to get into the program after meeting prerequisites. If accepted, Jones will spend a year studying, doing clinical work at local hospitals, similar to nursing clinical programs, and training to be a certified paramedic. If not, Jones will continue finishing general education courses and study for the test again.

Jones believes the real money isn’t in four-year programs, it’s in two-year programs like his. A lot of other veterans he knows are taking the two-year route, too. Coming out of the Army, they’ll find a two-year certification program related to something they completed while in service and get into the workforce.

Some people, however, don’t need any further education past high school, he said. What’s needed are the “proper people in the proper places.”

“Who’s going to be the guy flipping burgers, or fixing cars?,” he said. “Everybody can’t have an education, we need people at all levels of the workforce.”

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