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Achieving 55,000 Degrees to Advance Louisville's Education, Job Growth

April 25, 2011

Louisville (KY) was at a crossroads as city and county governments merged in 2003. With unity came a community consensus to take stock of the city's strengths and its challenges. Whether the issue was attracting new jobs or improving quality of life for all residents, the top priority for new Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer was clear: increase educational attainment and college graduation levels. Since 2008, Louisville has made tremendous advances toward achieving this goal. In October 2010, a new public-private partnership called "55,000 Degrees" took on this mission with the support of local foundations – to launch Louisville into the top tier of our competitor cities with the bold goal of 40,000 bachelor's degrees and 15,000 associate's degrees for city residents by 2020.

Fischer, current Chairman of 55,000 Degrees, took leadership of the program from former Mayor Jerry Abramson following his inauguration as mayor in January 2011. Fisher has long seen education as a top priority and a major factor for job growth in the Louisville-metro area. "The reality is, today, everybody's got a shot at going to college, but in your mind you-ve got to think that – so we create that expectation" said Fischer regarding advancing Louisville's 55,000 Degrees program.

"Education obviously ties to jobs," Fischer said. "So what we can do is embrace our 55,000 degree program which is 55,000 more college degrees by 2020 or two year certificates. As a city, we must take care of our day to day business, but we must think big and we must think bold. We must reward risk takers and we must grow because the future of our city, the relevance of Louisville as a thriving 21st Century city, is at stake."

Education has long been a top priority in Louisville and late in 2008 then-mayor Jerry Abramson invited school superintendents, college and university presidents, and civic leaders to a new Education Roundtable. The Roundtable's objective was to look at strategies to raise educational attainment and create transformational change in Louisville. Almost two years later, in May 2010, the Roundtable members signed the Greater Louisville Education Commitment that set out to create and support a college-going culture; use the business community's unique points of leverage to accelerate attainment; prepare students for success in college, career, citizenship, and life; make post'secondary education accessible and affordable; and increase educational persistence, performance, and progress.

Louisville has nearly 90,000 working-age adults who have started college but didn-t finish. As an example of community response to the 55,000 Degrees Program, two key groups were targeted for assistance by partnership organizations. Business Leaders for Education aims to help 15,000 complete bachelor's degrees and Greater Louisville Inc. has received an $800,000 grant from the Lumina Foundations to focus on helping working adults complete their degrees.

In Louisville, the percentage of African-American adults with a bachelor's degree is currently 14 percent. The Louisville Urban League and African-American community leaders have pledged to promote college-going and raise money for more scholarships. Their goal – 15,000 of 55,000 new degree-holders will be African-American.

To that end, in February 2011, the Louisville Urban League hosted an Education Summit to raise awareness of 55,000 Degrees- multi-year initiative and to educate people on organizations and institutions that are playing vital roles in the program. The Summit was a chance for the community to get together and brainstorm ways to improve education in the area. Fischer, who opened the Summit, commended African American community leaders, stated "You were the first to say we own 15,000 of those degrees – that's a strong move right there."

Through 55,000 Degrees, Fischer is working to raise the overall college attendance rate from 68.3 percent (Fall 2008) and is building a common understanding of the link between education and future success. The research identified a strong commitment to higher education but showed that tools are needed to show students the path to enrollment and graduation. The mayor hopes to achieve this goal by providing students with experiences visiting colleges, access to mentors, free campus activities, and by developing special programs to celebrate ‘first-generation-in-my-family- college-goers. With help from the business community, more working-age adults who have attended college but did not complete their degrees can go back and finish their degree. Fischer and 55,000 Degrees are looking to businesses to provide tuition assistance and flexible scheduling so employees can attend classes. The mayor is also relying on the business community to welcome students of all ages for internships, and to convey to kids the skills and credentials they will need for future success in the workplace.

ayor is also relying on the business community to welcome students of all ages for internships, and to convey to kids the skills and credentials they will need for future success in the workplace.

Educational attainment as a key means to boost Louisville's job market has long been an objective for Fischer. In his inaugural speech in January 2011, he stressed the importance of having "a workforce that is ready to take on the many challenges and opportunities in the increasingly connected global economy." Fischer is passionate about Louisville's 55,000 Degrees program and he has confidence in the citizens of Louisville to challenge themselves to better their own careers while also bettering the community.

For more information on the 55,000 Degrees Program, contact Mary Gwen Wheeler by e-mail to or call 502-574-6285 or for more information about the research contact Shawn Herbig by e-mail to or call 502-244-6600.