What is the state of higher education in Northern Kentucky?

Mark Payne
Mark Payne
Mark Payne is the government and politics reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected].

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When Dr. James Votruba arrived as president of Northern Kentucky University in 1997, his ‘Vision, Values, and Voices’ campaign sought to raise the Highland Heights campus’s profile and standards.

His 15-year tenure saw the transformation of the campus’s physical presence with the addition of new buildings and dormitories, tighter academic expectations, and a transition to NCAA Division I athletics. In the decade since his retirement, NKU has sought to continue to build on its improved reputation and responsibility to the regional community.

But the university and Northern Kentucky have changed since the days of Votruba and his vision. So what is the state of higher education in NKY now, and how are all the major universities in Northern Kentucky adapting to the region in the 21st century? 

Raising education attainment levels in the region will continue to affect the quality of life, said Matt Cecil, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs at NKU, and in general. 

“The idea that higher education is tasked with dealing and helping individuals sort of be their most and have that social mobility, but in so doing, also has a huge impact on the region,” Cecil said. 

Healthcare and life sciences, which includes Biology, medicine, anthropology, and ecology, are two industries that are making a significant splash in the region, as both have received funding to grow. All three universities in Northern Kentucky – NKU, Thomas More, and Gateway Community and Technical College – are all working to prepare students to enter careers in these fields. As of 2021, there are 3,502 students enrolled in programs in the College of Arts and Sciences. There are 5,020 enrolled in the College of Health and Human Services. 

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The Kentucky General Assembly allocated $15 million for a 10,000-square-foot life sciences lab in Covington during the 2022 legislative session. Gravity Diagnostics, Bexion Pharmaceuticals, and Clinical Trial and Consulting Services all call Covington home. 

“We want to, as usual, play whatever role is needed to help support that lab and to provide workforce,” Cecil said. 

Thomas More University is also looking to the future as the region puts a demand on careers in the sciences. TMU President Dr. Joseph L. Chillo said that the private catholic university overseen by the Diocese of Covington, and has just around 2,100 students, is working on developing programs in the life sciences. Thomas More recently introduced Lighting the Way, the university’s new five-year strategic plan. 

“We’re looking at a program in life science, a bachelor’s degree in life science, and a bachelor’s degree in engineering science because we’re seeing how significant these new careers are,” Chillio said. “And certainly here, what we’re looking at in Northern Kentucky, those programs are taking off significantly, and we see a need and an opportunity to fill those with talented individuals.”

Farther south, along I-75, Gateway Community and Technical College is also looking at preparing students for careers in the life sciences. The two-year college produces students for the workforce with associate degree programs and sends them to four-year schools such as NKU and Thomas More. When Gateway launched in 2001, it gave Northern Kentucky its first community college, and allowed students who didn’t meet higher education standards to get additional education.

“We’ve added now this cluster around biomedical science because of the businesses that had been developing in Northern Kentucky around that sector,” said Gateway President Dr. Fernando Figueroa

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Figueroa said they’ve thought long and hard about developing curriculum and building competencies and assessing those competencies in students so they are prepared for these industries that keep the region thriving. 

But, life sciences isn’t the only industry that’s thriving. Healthcare is also another critical area, with several major hospitals – Christ Hospital, St. Elizabeth, and Cincinnati Children’s – expanding in the region. 

“Our students are going into careers and certainly within majors that are having a major impact in terms of the economic growth and development here in Northern Kentucky,” Chillio said. 

St. Elizabeth opened a $130 million dollar Cancer Center. Along with the center, they invested in a Simulation Center at the College of Health and Human Services at NKU that will help prepare students for careers in healthcare.

“Healthcare is big, obviously,” Cecil said. “We have a huge need for nurses.”

Gateway is expanding its nursing program to address the region’s needs.

“We’ve been looking carefully at how we leverage our nursing program, which we’re expanding now,” Figueroa said. “Because we received some gifts that have helped us do that, but we’ve done it in a way that will create a sustainable model for the growth going forward.”

Surrounding the industries of nursing and life sciences, the region is also seeing substantial growth in business, consumer product goods, and related industries like logistics. 

“We’re seeing growth across our business programs,” Cecil said. “And we’re particularly interested to see if we can make some inroads in things like logistics.”

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