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Community needs, deserves more higher education

Editor’s Note: The Sept. 21 release of sobering statistics about Owensboro-Daviess County’s low educational attainment struck a nerve throughout the community. Despite research that documents how economic development is tied to the education level of the workforce, some local educators and community leaders responded defensively or indifferently to the report. We shared these reactions with the researcher and author of the study, William Chance, Ph.D., and allowed him an opportunity to clarify points, findings, recommendations, and to respond to those who say “it can’t be done.”

Report Summary

Key Findings

In terms of adults with baccalaureate degrees:

  • Daviess County ranks 18th among Kentucky counties.
  • Daviess County ranks below the state average.
  • Daviess County ranks next to the bottom when compared with Kentucky’s eight largest counties.
  • Daviess County ranks last when compared to counties where a four-year public institution is located.

In terms of adults with graduate or professional degrees:

  • Daviess County ranks below the state average.
  • Daviess County ranks last among peer counties.
  • Daviess County ranks last when compared to counties where a public four-year public institution is located.

In terms of adults enrolled in higher education:

  • Daviess County ranks below the state average.
  • Daviess County ranks next to last among peer counties.
  • Daviess County’s higher education institutions (Brescia University, Kentucky Wesleyan College, Owensboro Community and Technical College, Western Kentucky University – Owensboro Extended Campus) offer degrees in less than six percent of the programs listed in the U.S. Department of Education higher education registry.
  • Daviess County has the lowest net in-migration of Kentucky’s eight most populous counties.

Daviess County’s poor higher education rankings are even more disturbing when one considers that Kentucky consistently ranks among the lowest performing states in higher education.


  • Designate a community higher education advocacy association to coordinate and direct a campaign to increase higher education participation and attainment levels.
  • Adopt a community goal of reaching higher education participation and attainment rates comparable to those of Fayette County by 2020.
  • Pursue contractual relationships with independent colleges and universities for enrollment spaces in programs that fit with the community’s economic and higher education goals.
  • Join forces with Western Kentucky University and other institutions to bring new programs in the technical, science, engineering, agriculture and health areas to Owensboro.
  • Attract a full-fledged WKU branch campus over an extended campus.
  • Create a community Higher Education Center in which interested local institutions may offer courses and share facilities cooperatively.

Responding to Feedback

Participants at various meetings connected with the release of the report posed questions, shared impressions, and added comments, such as the following:

“The problem is a lack of jobs, not educational opportunities.”

“The colleges here already do a great job educating students. The problem is that there are no jobs here when they graduate. Our graduates don’t have trouble getting jobs in other cities. The reason why our population has a low percentage of college graduates is that so many of our high school graduates want to leave Owensboro for their college experience and they never return because there are no jobs. Those that stay for college leave for the same reason.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“Daviess County’s unemployment rate is higher than all but one of the seven most populous counties in Kentucky, and 15 percent higher than the Warren County unemployment rate. Western Kentucky University is located in Warren County. There is a connection.
“Job growth and economic stimulation through comprehensive higher education services is a model that works in other places.
“Attracting business is highly competitive. The evidence is clear: Communities that have more higher education services have a competitive advantage.”

“Which comes first: the feeder system or the jobs?”

“OCTC is investing in new programs, at a considerable risk, to link with emerging economic development possibilities – even though there is considerable doubt whether there will be any jobs. For example, the new associate program in biotechnology is a superb program, but Large Scale Biology is not hiring.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“To meet the needs of the marketplace and compete globally, Kentucky will need many more people enrolled in and completing higher education programs than it has today. The question is: Will Owensboro-Daviess County provide more of those services or allow them to be provided elsewhere?"
“We live in a learning society, and the public’s thirst for further education is not going away.”

“The benchmark cities that were used in the study have unfair advantages.”

“We can’t expect Owensboro-Daviess County to produce as many college graduates as cities like Bowling Green, Covington (Northern Kentucky), Lexington, Richmond, etc. that have universities in their backyard.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“That’s the point. Owensboro-Daviess County leaders will have to advocate effectively in order for your community to have advantages that characterize competitor communities. Peer counties were selected by population size, the best way to develop the most relevant comparisons. Statewide averages are helpful in showing comparisons with counties that are not listed specifically.”

“Our culture does not value education.”

“The people of Owensboro don’t value education. Parents don’t instill in their children the need to go onto college. This is due, in large part, to our rural traditions and the fact that many young people can earn more at a local factory than many others with a college degree. Some companies prefer to hire workers right out of high school and put them through their own training program. And some employers don’t provide incentives. Why would someone go to a four-year nursing school when a two-year nursing graduate earns as much?”

Dr. Chance responds:

“I do not believe this, but Owensboro is not the first place I’ve heard it. One-third of young Americans do not advance to postsecondary education, and many in that group do not graduate."
“The prospect of immediate employment, even when not in a chosen career field, is an attractive lure, particularly for many young men. In some cases, often in technical training programs, students are hired out of the program before they complete it because demand for even partially trained employees is so great. Students also stop in and out."
“Affordability rather than culture is a more important reason. Cost and the need to work were reasons given for not going to college by the majority of non-college respondents to the Owensboro community survey. In a national study, about half of the respondents who did not go on to college said they could not afford it. Less than a quarter said they made this decision because they had enough of school.
“College attendance or non-attendance, especially by young male high school graduates, is becoming an issue of national concern. When I went to college, male students slightly outnumbered females. Now females outnumber males, and by a larger margin than when males prevailed."
“Young workers without degrees report that they are in their jobs by chance and do not view them as careers. These answers suggest lack of effective preparation, counseling, and, probably, parental guidance.”

“Many students are not prepared for college.”

“Too many students are not ready for college. They need remedial work. We should not lower our standards to attract or graduate more students. Brescia University official: Students tell us they don’t want to come to Brescia because it’s too hard. They would rather go to the community college. They’re just looking for a piece of paper.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“Opinions on preparedness vary by perspective. A report released a couple of years ago found only about 30 percent of college professors believed that a high school diploma was any guarantee that graduates had mastered the basics; conversely, about three-quarters of teachers and recent high school graduates felt that it was."
“According to the Kentucky Department of Education, Owensboro’s high school graduates tend to achieve higher ACT scores and college grade point averages (GPAs) than residents of the rest of the state. There are some exceptions, but the numbers do not suggest a lack of preparedness. We also know that a lot of these students go on to colleges outside of the community. Owensboro/Daviess County residents constitute a large portion of WKU’s student enrollment."
“Lack of preparedness does not seem any more of a scandal here than elsewhere, which is to say it may be a scandal of national proportion.”

“There is not a market for much more than is being offered.”

“The study concludes that we should offer more courses and degree programs. If there was a market for these programs, we (the local colleges) would already be offering them. Institutions cannot offer programs at a loss when there are not enough students to support them. The hospital offers full scholarships for nursing and a guaranteed job, and they still can’t attract students.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“Much depends on the definition of market. Recently a community college president in a remote section of New Mexico told me he believed that anything done in a high quality manner would attract students and jobs. His institution serves a four-county area with a 15-person per square mile population density, yet the state authorized it to offer bachelor’s programs, starting with teacher education. I have no doubt there will be a market for these graduates, and for the graduates of other programs that follow."
“I wish I could feel sanguine that Owensboro institutions can respond with whatever courses and programs the market demands, but institutions can be entrenched by established programs and tenured faculty. They often must do new things on the margin and may not be able to respond with alacrity to emergent needs."
“Owensboro Community and Technical College offers a fairly wide range of certificate and associate programs, but the range and variety of programs at the bachelor’s level in Owensboro are limited.”

“Western gives lip service to Owensboro.”

“Through the years, WKU has primarily provided an opportunity for teachers to take required graduate courses without leaving Owensboro. They offer little else, use mediocre local adjunct faculty, and – rather than bring in programs that are not available in Owensboro – they have duplicated courses and programs offered by Brescia and Wesleyan.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“It is true that WKU-Owensboro offers only 12 of the 117 baccalaureate programs available in Bowling Green, and only seven of the 33 master’s programs offered on the home campus."
“Some of this may relate to space. Adding space in Owensboro for WKU, establishing a full-fledged university branch, and creating a higher education center will lead to more programs not currently offered by any local institution. More stability, predictability, and variety will also attract tenure-track faculty.”

“Western needs to move an entire program here.”

“We don’t need a few courses offered in Owensboro connected with a solid WKU program that is centered in Bowling Green; we need WKU to establish a center of distinction here – biotechnology, agricultural engineering, environmental science, nanotechnology etc. – programs that are tied to the jobs of tomorrow and entrepreneurialism.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“The frustration is understandable. Most of the program fields associated with advancement in the global economy that are available on WKU’s home campus are not available in Owensboro. Those include Agriculture, Natural Resources, Computer and Information Sciences, Engineering, Foreign Languages, Biology and Biomedical Sciences, Mathematics, Physical Sciences, and the Health Sciences.”

“Why not just build on what we have?”

“We already have two fine four-year institutions. We should focus our energy and resources on helping Kentucky Wesleyan and Brescia grow and improve. With more local support and larger endowments, they could develop more majors, graduate programs and attract many more students – many of whom would naturally stay in Owensboro.

Dr. Chance responds:

“The report encourages this in its call for more cooperation and collaboration among the institutions serving the community. And people also should recognize that some of this is happening now, although it could be more visible. There is room for more collaboration, and there is support for this in the community, as long as it does not involve continuation of the status quo. The report’s recommendation of a higher education center is in part intended as a call for a neutral and convenient place in which more of this can occur.”

“We need to merge these good institutions into one great institution.”

“If the trustees of each institution would embrace a goal of doing what is best for the community rather than what is best for the institution, they would find a way to do what needs to be done: merge the institutions, pool the resources, create a critical mass of students, work with a larger endowment, and design a competitive, appealing university.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“Support for increased cooperation and collaboration may imply an interest in this, but there are limits. I do not think consolidation in a physical sense is very realistic for all of the obvious reasons – the two local four-year institutions are independently governed and they have deep religious roots and heritages."
“Consortia relationships in which each of the separate participants are truly committed to the success of the relationship can go part of the way. But in the end these are separate enterprises with separate cultures and values."
“They also are viable institutions. Sometimes when an independent college or university finds it necessary to close its doors, and this is not very often, the state will acquire it for public purposes, but Owensboro’s institutions appear to be a long way from this."
“A more exciting future it seems is one in which Owensboro is home to several different types of institutions, with many educational flowers blooming, and many schools of thought contending.”

“We need real innovation through technology.”

“We need to forget about Western and develop relationships with the Harvards, Yales, Stanfords, and MIT’s through distance learning. Students here could have access to the best professors and brightest minds through technology. ”

Dr. Chance responds:

“Sometimes I think that much of the innovation people insist is occurring in higher education is more shadow than substance. I interpret the call for ‘real’ innovation as recognition of this. ‘Technology’ also is a very broad term. It now seems to be a synonym for Internet technology applied to instruction."
“The public is quite receptive to the idea of accentuating local programs with first-rate distance learning programs. The survey data show that people want more Internet activity, but – and this is important – they also want classroom experiences. Nearly 60 percent of survey respondents said they wanted a blend of the two forms."
“In some respects the argument may be academic. The majority of college students already employ a combination of the two. They are way out in front. This may be what is meant by real innovation, and it is happening now.”

“We don’t need a higher education center.”

“We (the four local colleges) are already collaborating. Developing a higher education advocacy group is fine, but we don’t need a center. We don’t need another building to construct and maintain. That just dilutes resources that could be used more effectively in other ways.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“Okay. This is something for people in the community to decide. The point is, the community needs a neutral ground on which collaboration and cooperation, cross-registration, course sharing, a common catalog, faculty collaboration, etc. can occur; more space in which to offer classes and try new things; and a stronger higher education focus and identity for the community. Perhaps most important, it would give people in Owensboro a more direct role in decisions about what is needed and what is to be provided there.”

“We need control of our proportionate share of state funds.“

“We need to fight for our proportionate share of state higher education dollars and then have control over how the funds are spent through a local board.”

Dr. Chance responds:

“The operative term may be ‘local control.’ This is what much of the report is about. It calls for a more comprehensive range of public institution programs, a public institution branch, contracts with the two private institutions, and more direct involvement in program decisions, all of which relate to greater ‘local control.’"
“Participation rates and enrollments drive higher education budgets. As the recommended operations take form, as students enroll, and as more local operational autonomy is achieved, the funds will be both more ‘proportionate’ in the sense implied by the question, and more ‘locally controlled.’"
“I’ll close with this: Owensboro is a wonderful place with great potential. Its story is not in the past. The challenges represented by the things called for in the study are daunting, but they can be accomplished with commitment and perseverance. The title of the report is ‘Charting a New Course.’ It is a new journey, and I believe it is one worth making. I hope others will feel likewise.”

Charting a New Course: Higher Education in Owensboro and Daviess County, Kentucky

Commissioned by the Owensboro Citizens Committee on Education
Summaries are available: 685-2652
The full report is available on the NORED website: www.nored.us

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