WHAT IF you made earning a college degree a community goal?

This post is tenth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

What does a college degree have to do with health? Quite a lot, says Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees. Her organization has an audacious goal: see to it that at least half of adults in Louisville, Ky., have an associate degree or higher by 2020.

People with college degrees enjoy higher average incomes, are less likely to have ever smoked or to be obese, have fewer divorces and are more likely to exercise compared to those without a degree.

“We set this goal because we saw it as a proxy for increasing quality of life,” Wheeler says.

The dozens of business, education and community-based partners that launched 55,000 Degrees in 2010 have witnessed significant progress. The number of high school students who graduate with the skills to attend college and start their careers reached 63 percent last year, compared with 45 percent in 2012. The number of college students completing degrees has gone up at 4-year institutions, even as enrollment has gone down.

“We’ve been able to move all populations, but we haven’t been able to close the gaps” between white and minority students, Wheeler says. “That led us to the mayor’s Cradle to Career initiative. We understood we needed to start much earlier.”

Now 55,000 Degrees is one of four organizations with lead roles in a continuum of programs that begin with preschool and bolster education and training for Louisville residents beyond their high school and post-secondary graduations.

  • The United Way will spearhead work to get more children into quality preschool programs and prepare more than three-quarters of students for kindergarten by 2020, compared to about half today and a little more than one-third a few years ago.
  • The school district aims to have every student reading at grade level by the end of third grade. By 2020, it plans to raise the number of students who graduate from high school to more than 9 in 10 and ensure that 85 percent of high school graduates enroll in college, using steps such as summer coaching to keep new graduates on track.
  • The nonprofit KentuckianaWorks offers training and programming to give working-age residents the skills to get jobs and succeed in the region’s manufacturing, tech and healthcare sectors.

Taken together, these efforts will ultimately give more Louisville residents a chance at obtaining a degree—and a better life.