One of the most important indicators of the economic health of state is the percentage of its population with a college degree. Unfortunately, Kentucky has historically had an exceptionally low college attainment rate.
In fact, a 2020 Wallethub ranking placed Kentucky 47th in the nation for the percentage of the population with bachelor’s degrees. Only 53 percent of Kentucky high school graduates enrolled in postsecondary education one year after high school, far below the national average of 69%. An individual’s decision to not pursue education after high school hinders both individuals and the state economy as a whole.
A Brookings institute report found that Americans who do not attend college constitute a larger percentage of the pool of people living below the poverty line than those with a postsecondary degree. This outcome can be attributed to a shift in the labor market, which now prioritizes workers with advanced education rather than low-skilled manual laborers. In Kentucky, the percentages of the population that are unemployed or on Medicaid have grown in almost every county in the state—two figures that would likely improve if Kentuckians had more access to affordable higher education.
A considerable roadblock for many Kentuckians in attaining a college degree is paying for it. The Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority estimates that one year at a Kentucky public university costs a student $19,635. For private nonprofit colleges and universities, the cost is even greater—$32,416. For many Kentuckians, a main lifeline for affording an advanced degree are scholarships, which can offset considerable chunks of the cost. In Kentucky, one of the main scholarships available to students is the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES). KEES funding is available to high school students, home schooled students, and GED graduates. Funding is allocated based on a student’s grades, GPA, and test scores.
One notable group excluded from accessing KEES money are individuals with felony convictions. Twenty thousand Kentuckians, nearly two thousand of which are under the age of 25, are currently detained. This figure does not include over 40,000 individuals on probation or parole or the number of individuals who have served their sentence in Kentucky. According to the League of Women Voters, over 300,000 Kentuckians—9.1% of the total population and 26% of the African American population—have former felony convictions and therefore are not eligible to use any KEES money they might have accrued.
Expanding the KEES scholarship to include those with felony convictions not only expands the labor force and reduces recidivism but also helps to combat deep racial and gender-based disparities that exist in the bluegrass state. Eight percent of the Kentucky population is Black, but nearly a quarter (22%) of the Department of Corrections population is Black. Policies that omit individuals with criminal backgrounds disproportionally affects Black Kentuckians. In addition, the number of women in Kentucky prisons continues to grow, locking out more and more women from accessible higher education.
The collateral consequences of a felony conviction in Kentucky can be overwhelming. Difficulties obtaining housing and employment, restrictions on voting, and less access education are just a few hurdles that formerly incarcerated individuals face. Expanding the KEES scholarship to include those with felony convictions is a necessary and important step toward creating a stronger workforce and ensuring that those with past convictions have the ability to overcome the barriers to success imposed by a felony conviction.
The KEES scholarship could be of particular importance to those with past felony convictions because KEES funding can be applied toward approved registered apprenticeships or qualified workforce training programs. Securing employment is one of the most challenging hurdles after incarceration and expanding the KEES scholarship is one way to help these individuals get back on their feet.
The benefits of education—whether postsecondary or technical training—are immense. In addition to higher wages, those with continued education are more able to reintegrate into the community after incarceration and are less likely to recidivate. Higher percentages of the population with postsecondary education bolsters the economy and individuals’ self-worth. The 2018 General Social Survey found that Americans with a college education are happier, healthier, and enjoying a higher quality of life than those without one.
A person’s life should not be defined by their lowest point, and the ability to pick yourself back up after setback is a trait deeply entrenched in most Kentuckians. Kentucky must act to unlock education and employment opportunities for thousands of Kentuckians by removing the felony ban from the KEES scholarship.
ERINN J. BROADUS is Deputy Director of Criminal Justice Policy of the Pegasus Institute.