Expanding What's Possible As Kentucky's University

photo of campus

President Capilouto wrote the following op-ed in June 2019, which appeared in several regional publications. 

If you read the headlines across the country, you may have the impression that the challenges facing higher education are greater than the opportunities.

The litany of concerns looms large, from student debt to a national scandal over test scores and admissions.

But the headlines obscure a larger truth: The work we do at institutions like the University of Kentucky has never been more important – for the students we educate, the patients we heal and the communities we serve and help grow.

In fact, I would submit that the work we do at universities like UK is essential to the future health and welfare of our Commonwealth and our country. The future has never been more important for higher education. I also believe it has never been more promising.

Consider just two examples at the University of Kentucky that underscore this point:

In April, the University of Kentucky received a four-year, more than $87 million grant from the National Institutes of Health focused on opioid use disorder and addiction.

Part of the HEALing (Helping End Addiction Long-term) Communities study, it was awarded against the backdrop of more than 47,000 opioid-overdose deaths across the country in 2017. Kentucky represents one of only four study sites across the nation selected for this groundbreaking work.

The award represents the largest grant in our institution’s history. But more important than the numbers or dollars are the lives affected by this grant.

The question we are posing is this: Is it possible for this University – working in partnership with the state and communities – to stem the tide of an epidemic, an epidemic costing thousands of lives, ravaging communities and reducing life expectancy?

We believe it is possible.

Perhaps the other great challenge confronting our Commonwealth is the need to develop a highly skilled and competitive workforce, the kind of workforce needed to recruit and retain jobs in a technologically advanced and diverse 21st century economy.

Our state has as a goal to reach 60 percent college degree attainment by 2030. The fact is that at least some education beyond high school is essential for a good-paying, sustainable job – whether that’s technical training or community college or a graduate program in computer science.

And that’s why the state’s flagship institution – Kentucky’s university – has to ensure that the doors of opportunity are open wider for Kentuckians.

We are stepping up to meet the challenge. Consider our initiative to reduce unmet financial need—the UK LEADS program—which has garnered national attention for its innovative use of data analytics to enhance student success and expand access to higher education.

According to our analysis, if we reduce unmet financial need to $5,000, the rate at which students return to the University increases by at least 15 percentage points.

That’s unacceptable to us. Equipped with these data, we began targeting aid to students for whom unmet financial need was the largest barrier to success. And the data suggest that UK LEADS is working, as this year we saw retention and graduation rates at record highs—translating to more students crossing the Commencement stage to lead lives of meaning and purpose.

In the last 10 years, we’ve tripled the amount of financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid to make college more affordable. Nearly 90 percent of Kentucky students received that aid last year. In fact, among those Kentucky students with the most need – coming from the lowest income quartile, for which the median household income is less than $20,000 annually – the average cost for tuition and fees has dropped below zero.

We’re expanding our online education programs to further provide access to programs that prepare students for work in fields like distilled spirits that are dramatically growing. We are reaching back out to students with some college credit who are close to receiving their degrees – through an initiative called Project Graduate –and working with them to finish their studies. In fact, this May, 100 undergraduate students with Project Graduate received their diplomas.

It’s another way we are boldly pursuing what is possible. After all, pursuing lofty goals—dreaming big dreams—has been our promise to our Commonwealth for more than 150 years. It is the idea that a university can change the trajectory of a state and beyond for the better. It is the idea that we must always push ourselves to do more, to be more, for Kentucky.

It’s the idea in higher education – and at Kentucky’s university – that we can and we must extend the boundaries of what is possible.