The University of Pikeville will open Kentucky's first college of optometry, school leaders announced Wednesday.
The university plans to build a new facility to house the college, which will start with a class of 60 students in 2016, said UPike President James Hurley.
Gov. Steve Beshear, who attended the announcement in Pikeville, said a $1.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission will boost the new college.
Hurley said a feasibility study has been completed and an advisory committee will help move the college forward. UPike has also started a search for the college's dean.
The announcement comes after the University of Pikeville-Kentucky College of Optometry was approved last week as a "Stage One Applicant" by the American Optometric Association's Accreditation Council on Optometric Education.
Beshear said the new school would help the SOAR initiative (Shaping Our Appalachian Region), and similar projects designed to boost Eastern Kentucky's economic development.
"We're going to be your partner every step of the way to make sure this next step for UPike is as successful as all the other steps you've taken," Beshear said.
Improving the health of rural Kentuckians is a top priority, Beshear said.
"As more people access health care through Medicaid and other programs and as our population ages, the need for medical professionals, including quality optometrists, is expected to increase," he said.
Optometrists are medical professionals with a four-year degree who can give regular eye care and prescribe glasses and contacts. In Kentucky, optometrists are licensed to perform limited surgery with lasers.
Ophthalmologists are doctors with medical school degrees who offer complete eye care, including surgery.
According to the Kentucky Optometric Association, the Council on Postsecondary Education has arranged for Kentucky's optometry students to attend schools in neighboring states. Currently, Kentucky has contracts with Indiana University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Southern College of Optometry in Memphis.
Founded in 1889, UPike is a private school with 1,282 undergraduate students and 467 graduate students. It offers graduate programs in osteopathic medicine, business administration and sports management.
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.