CPE President Aaron Thompson stopped at UofL as part of his listening tour of Kentucky's state institutions.
CPE President Aaron Thompson stopped at UofL as part of his listening tour of Kentucky's state institutions.

Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President Aaron Thompson is somewhat of a perpetual optimist. The way he sees it, he should be.

“I’m a black man from Clay County, Kentucky, born of an illiterate father and an 8th grade-educated mother who was born in a log cabin with a dirt floor and I’m the head of higher education for the state of Kentucky – if that makes a statement,” he said. “But (moving the state forward) is going to take more than optimism. It’s going to take smarts, collaboration … It’s going to take us thinking differently.”

Thompson, who spent much of Tuesday on UofL’s campus as part of his ongoing listening tour of public universities, has been in his current role for a little over two years, advocating for higher education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It’s been a challenge – state funding has been cut for 11 straight years – but he hopes this trajectory will change with the new legislative session, which kicked off this week.

“I’m proud that even through these cuts, Kentucky’s campuses have continued to produce. Over the last 5 years, we’ve had about an 11% increase in higher ed production, whether through certificates or degrees. The other thing I’m proud of is that we’ve closed some of our educational gaps,” he said.

Those gaps include a 27% increase in the number of students of color earning their degrees, and a 23% increase in the number of low-income/underrepresented students earning their degrees.

Despite this progress, however, he said it’s critical to regain funding for higher education, adding that such funding is a proactive approach to solving some of the state’s biggest issues.

“I know we have a lot of needs in Kentucky – criminal justice, Medicaid, pensions. However, 90% of SNAP and Medicaid recipients don’t have a degree. I argue that we are funding problems and not much of the solution,” Thompson said. “I’m not saying to not fund problems, but we have to fund solutions, too.”

UofL and UK, Kentucky’s two research institutions, are especially well positioned to provide solutions, he adds.

“Research has to take on a more crucial role. We have a lot of ills in Kentucky and research helps us with those ills,” he said.

Thompson also discussed UofL’s financial turnaround under President Neeli Bendapudi’s leadership, stating that it has restored a sense of hope.

“Now the university is doing exactly what we knew it could do and I think that turmoil is behind us,” he said. “There is a sense of hope and courage. UofL is easily invested into with its research and its diversity and inclusion efforts, which are unlike anything else being done in the state.”

That sense of hope extends to the entire Commonwealth. Thompson said just over 53% of residents go to college, which presents a big opportunity to attract the other 47%. Further, as the demand for adult learning grows, Kentucky universities have another opportunity to ensure professionals are as marketable as they can be.

“There is a significant value in higher education that we need to promote. Most jobs 10 years from now have not been invented yet,” Thompson said. “We have to show that this is worthy of the investment and not be shy about quality. The return is huge.”

Check out more of Thompson’s interview below.