The report’s cover.

College education is becoming ever more important — and ever less affordable for Louisvillians, according to a new report from 55,000 Degrees.

The nonprofit, which is focused on increasing the share of Louisvillians with education after high school, found that costs had risen so dramatically that even students from relatively wealthy families cannot afford to attend without loans.

The agency looked at 10 hypothetical students and calculated whether they could attend college without loans if they worked 10 hours per week and if their families saved 10 percent of their income for a decade before the first day of college. Families had annual household incomes between $2,130 and $163,000. Seven earned less than $40,000. The calculation included housing, transportation, supplies and other costs.

Only one student, whose family earned $163,000, could afford to attend all seven of the state’s four-year public institutions. Even the child of a family earning $105,000 could not afford to attend any of the state’s seven public four-year institutions.

“The results were sobering and provocative,” said Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees. “Only the wealthiest had many affordable options.

Since 2008, local tuition has increased an average 32 percent, and almost 500 fewer JCPS graduates are going to college than in 2009, according to the report. And since 2010, more than 11,000 fewer people have enrolled in college in the Louisville region.

“All too often, the numbers just don’t add up,” she said. “We can’t wait any longer to tackle it.”

Wheeler presented the findings Friday at the Workforce and Education Summit hosted by 55,000 Degrees, KentuckianaWorks and Greater Louisville Inc.

“We have to first create the sense of urgency, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Mary Gwen Wheeler

People who worked their way through college 20 years ago often believe that students now can do the same, Wheeler said, but tuition and other costs have risen much more than wages and financial aid, which makes the economics of college much more difficult for families and students today.

The irony is that the rising cost of education after high school is keeping ever more people out of college at a time that post-secondary knowledge and skills are essentially becoming a job requirement.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, more than 95 percent of jobs created since the recession “have gone to workers with at least some college education, while those with a high school diploma or less are being left behind.”

“Workers with at least some postsecondary education now make up 65 percent of the total employment,” the center said.

Many local employers have complained in the last few years that despite offering solid benefits, on-the-job training and wages that are double the minimum wage, they are struggling to attract applicants with the right skills.

Wheeler said Louisville stakeholders are responding: Jefferson County Public Schools are enabling students to earn college credits while in high school and they are offering students new pathways that align their education with job requirements.

Postsecondary institutions are exploring how to reduce the number of courses people need for graduation and are looking at shifting merit-based financial aid to need-based aid. A coalition of nonprofits, government and businesses plan to raise tens of millions of dollars to enable every JCPS graduate to obtain at least a two-year college degree.

Courtesy of the New York Fed

Wheeler also said that while the rising cost of college and the increasing need for students to take on sizable loans keep ever more families wondering about the value of a college education, statistics still show, clearly, that investing in education after high school is still a wise decision.

According to a report by the New York Federal Reserve Bank, the return on an investment in a college education as recently as 2013 remained “high on average, regardless of one’s college major.”

While college students are paying more to go to school and are earning less upon graduation, “investing in a college degree may be more important than ever before because those who fail to do so are falling further and further behind,” the Fed said.

Over a lifetime, retiring at 65, “workers with a bachelor’s degree on average earn well over $1 million more than high school graduates” even though they work four years less, the Fed said.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.