Kentucky postsecondary degree programs provide paths to pay equity

A new report from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education highlights academic programs that prepare underrepresented minority (URM) and low-income students for high-demand occupations with earnings that match or exceed their peers.

The report, “Analysis on Workforce Preparedness and Early Career Outcomes for Underrepresented Minority and Low-Income Status Students in Kentucky,” identified 29 baccalaureate, associate and certificate/diploma degree programs that prepare URM and low-income students for successful careers with equitable earnings.

The programs are in the fields of education, health, STEM, business, social science and trade career preparation. The CPE analysis shows that in most cases, low-income and URM graduates from these degree programs earned higher wages than their peers.

Findings were based on earnings data one year following graduation from over 140,000 Kentucky graduates between 2008-2020.

Earnings disparities have been shown to persist across all education levels, according to a CPE report published earlier this year. Identifying degree programs that counter this trend will enable institutions to reproduce best practices that foster student success.

The latest report, which includes data from interviews with faculty, staff and students from the high-achieving degree programs, identifies 10 recommendations to improve equitable career outcomes for URM and low-income students, including:

  • Foster a culture of care and trust.
  • Focus on employability, adopting the mindset “their success is our success.”
  • Engage employers in the instruction process.
  • Improve faculty/staff awareness of unique student needs and adapt to shifting concerns.
  • Guide underrepresented students into high-demand occupations.
  • Improve student financial literacy and awareness of resources.
  • Eliminate gaps in career counseling.
  • Provide accessible networking opportunities.
  • Encourage career-focused discussions within social groups.
  • Advance cultural diversity on campus.

CPE President Aaron Thompson said that his agency is prioritizing research that can advance the career trajectory of low-income and URM students because it’s mission critical.

“These report findings will be a major boost in accelerating our efforts to provide equitable access to high-achieving programs and ensuring that our graduates receive the earnings appropriate to their education levels,” he said.

Faculty and staff from the programs identified best practices that they adopted to improve outcomes for URM and low-income students. Examples include internships and experiential learning programs, which faculty cited as key pathways to employment. Faculty described targeted efforts to maximize the potential of these experiences.

Across all education levels, the narratives of faculty and staff were consistent in detailing the importance placed on employability within their programs.

Steve Hatcher, a faculty participant from Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College, explained their approach: “We work really, really hard on putting our graduates to work… Not only are we teachers, we’re counselors. Part of our job is job placement because that reflects back through our program. What is the purpose of a college program if your graduates don't go to work?”

Researchers hope that the recommendations identified in these high-achieving programs can help improve equitable postsecondary outcomes statewide.

“We know that education is a major predictor of higher earnings,” says Dr. Matthew Vetter, lead author of the report, “so there is huge potential in leveraging the higher education experience to help eliminate earnings disparities in the workforce. We hope the findings can help colleges improve the career readiness of their graduates so that greater opportunities will be available to low-income and URM students.”

Results will be shared with campuses in the near future.

The full report was conducted with funding from Lumina Foundation and in partnership with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and Emsi.

The report can be found online at