Mark Jones, a client of KCAC, at the organization’s new center in the ArtSpace Building, 323 W. Broadway | Courtesy of KCAC

To celebrate four decades of helping make college a reality for lower-income clients, the KentuckianaWorks College Access Center moved into new digs at the ArtSpace Building next to the Brown Theatre on Monday.

The move comes as the city grapples with a recent reduction in the percentage of college graduates.

This past year, center officials say, they have assisted more than 3,000 adults, including Maya Williamson, who was struggling, even homeless briefly, when she came in for help. She connected with the program to secure financial aid and to stay on track with her studies, they say.

KCAC, which is funded by federal TRIO grants, operates two programs, including one that focuses on helping adults 19 and older like Williamson go to college, which started in 1977, and another started in 1988, which helps 800-plus high school students keep on track with their studies and develop a plan for college.

Williamson says she is pursuing a business degree at Jefferson Community & Technical College, planning to be the first in her family to graduate college. “I don’t think I would have made it to college without all their help,” she says.

Indeed, more than two-thirds of the center’s clients were lower-income, and 83 percent were the first in their family to attend college, KCAC said.

A recent drop in the percentage of college graduates in Louisville has caused concern locally among educators and community leaders who say more proactive efforts are needed to build the skilled workforce the region needs to remain competitive for better-paying jobs.

In Louisville, 42.4 percent of working-age adults have at least an associate degree, according to census numbers released last week. That’s a 2.3 percentage point drop from last year, within the margin of error.

The decrease balanced out a similar increase from the previous year, making the longer term trend basically flat, pointed out Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees, in a recent release.

The organization started seven years ago to lift Louisville’s number to 50 percent of residents holding at least an associate degree by 2020 from 38.3 percent in 2008.

“We are simply not making the steady, sustained increases necessary to make the life-changing differences we want for our children and our community,” Wheeler said in the release.

Mayor Greg Fischer said the organization was working on a plan, to be announced in the coming weeks, that would transform the opportunities for young people in Louisville.

“Bottom line: We’re not going to be able to move the needle on college attainment until we do something fundamental about the challenges that are keeping young people out of college,” Fischer said. “We need to address affordability and other significant barriers soon.”

Fischer was on hand Monday to join KCAC staff, clients and partners to mark its 40th anniversary and new home. He said, “Helping people realize their dream of higher education is not only critical for each student and their family, it’s critical to building a stronger workforce and economy.”

The center provides free services, including helping prospective students apply for financial aid. A key date, officials pointed out, is Oct. 1, when the application for federal student financial aid, known as FAFSA, can be filed.

In fact, paying tuition remains a big obstacle for many students. College costs have risen dramatically and many students face financial struggles at home that make even getting through high school difficult.

“Getting financial aid is a key component to make your dreams of college a reality,” said Lashala Goodwin, executive director of KCAC. Counselors are on hand to guide students through the process and maximize chances of getting funding and other support, she added.

Phil Miller, director of communications at KentuckianaWorks, says the counselors at the KCAC “are working with the folks who have the least amount of support, history in the family and financial resources for going to college, and creating success stories every day.”

The program’s new space on Broadway also houses KentuckianaWorks’ Degrees Work program, which helps contracts with employers like Humana, Universal Woods and Louisville Metro Government to help their employees return to college.

Both the KCAC and Degrees Work contribute to the work being done by 55,000 Degrees.

College graduate progress | Courtesy 55,000 Degrees

In the recent census study, among those 25 to 34, the percentage with an associate degree or higher actually dropped by 4.4 percentage points, 55,000 Degrees noted. And the percentage with a bachelor’s degree or better dropped 5 percentage points.

What’s more, the group said, Louisville lost ground in comparison with its peers. Birmingham, Ala., and Greensboro, N.C., moved up while Louisville dropped two spots to No. 11 on the list of 16 peer cities.

“We need bold, innovative action that will help families over the obstacles they face,” Wheeler of 55,000 Degrees said.

Mickey Meece
Mickey Meece is a native of Louisville, a Kentucky Colonel and a graduate of the University of Kentucky. She worked at The New York Times for 13 years in various capacities on the business and features desk, including assistant to the editor, small business editor, weekend editor and staff editor. Mickey served as executive editor of USAA Magazine, the Money magazine for military families, and was an editor for the American Banker newspaper, where she reported on the credit card industry.