HAZARD — The latest census data on the percentage of people attaining college degrees shows that the number has risen in Perry County since 1970, but remains significantly below the national, state and even rural average.
Perry County currently has less than 12 percent of its residents over the age of 25 obtaining college degrees, while the national average is close to 28 percent and urban areas are over 30 percent. While all of the these numbers have continued to increase over the past 40 years, numbers in Eastern Kentucky and Perry County have remained low.
In 1970, 5.1 percent of Perry County had completed college degrees. While this number has grown by nearly 7 percent, it remains well below the state average. Kentucky has gone from only 7.2 percent to 20.3 percent over the same time period, a jump of over 13 percent.
Even other rural areas of the United States have seen considerable growth in the last 40 years, from 5.7 to 15.4 percent attainment.
In rural Appalachian counties, however, the numbers remain lower than the national rural average. Harlan jumped from 4.3 percent to 11.1, Knott from 4.9 to 12.4, Breathitt from 6.0 to 10.4, Leslie from 4.5 to 8.1, and Letcher from 3.1 to 11.7.
One of the contributing factors to this large disparity is the lack of options for four-year degrees in the Appalachian region. However, in counties that have colleges with bachelor programs, the jumps in number of degrees are more significant. Knott County has Alice Lloyd College and saw a jump of 7.5 percent, and Pike County has the University of Pikeville and has jumped nearly 8 percent from 4.1 to 12.0.
These numbers seem to show that the closer a college is, the more likely students are to complete their college degree. These numbers could also be a reflection of the number of programs students are exposed to through the schools such as recruiting and college readiness.
In recent years, Perry County has also gained a four-year college system, the University Center of the Mountains that allows students to get bachelors and master’s degrees from state schools while staying close to home. Because this is a relatively new and growing program, it is likely that Perry County will see more significant jumps in the number of residents receiving degrees.
Hazard Community and Technical College President Dr. Steve Greiner said that he believes this data maybe skewed already. Since the data is looking at college graduates that are over 25, many of UCM’s graduates that have remained in the area are not included in this census data.
UCM started in 2004 with its first graduates being the 2005-2006 class. Since then, the college has grown to around 150 graduates a year, meaning most of their graduates after 2007 would not be counted in this data.
“They missed many of our best years,” said Greiner.
He said something else that isn’t reflected in the data is that in many areas of the Appalachian region, people tend to continue their education, but in the form of certifications and not degrees to get into the work force sooner. HCTC in particular was recently included in a list of the nation’s top producers of one-year certificates.
“We know we are producing one-year certificates,” he said. “But we didn’t know we were in the top 100 in the country in producing one-year certificates. That came as a surprise to us.”
Many of these certificates do translate to high paying positions, such as HVAC or plumbing.
As far as four-year degrees go, Greiner believes that Perry County will see a significant improvement in the number of residents obtaining degrees in the 2020 census data. After all, it was the 2000 census data that made city officials take notice of the low numbers of college graduates. Their response was to create UCM to help increase these statistics.
UCM will be a major factor in the future,” said Greiner.