Amanda Davis grew up in Floyd County with a single mother who worked two jobs to support her. Even though she was a good student, higher education didn’t seem possible.
Then Davis won a place in the Robinson Scholars Program, and everything changed. The scholarship not only provided a full ride to the University of Kentucky, it prepared her for the cultural changes she would experience as a first-generation college student.
“I would never have been able to go to a big university without the Robinson Scholars Program,” Davis said from her classroom at Floyd County’s Betsy Layne Elementary, where she has taught since graduating from UK in 2015.
“This is what got me out of Eastern Kentucky, but it’s also what brought me back,” she said. The program has educated almost 750 students since 1997, many of whom, like Davis, have returned to Eastern Kentucky.
Despite its successes, Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed two-year state budget would erase it, cutting $1 million in state funding that pays for most of the UK scholarships. The governor’s proposal created a wave of alarm among Robinson Scholars alumni, who like Davis say it should keep changing lives and the region.
“The program is more than just an educational program,” said Dakota Halbert, a Robinson Scholar who graduated from UK last May. “It’s also an investment in the region.” He’s now working on a master’s degree in public health and plans to return to his native Estill County to work.
Jessica Fletcher, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, said many tough decisions had to be made as the governor crafted his budget proposal.
“The Robinson Scholars program, which received $1 million in the last biennium, also receives funding from private donors, and we are hopeful that donations will flow in so that the program can continue,” Fletcher said. “Ultimately, the University of Kentucky will decide what the future of the program will be.”
The Robinson Scholars Program was established in 1997 from a trust set up by timber magnate E.O. Robinson in the 1930s. He deeded the 15,000-acre Robinson Forest — which covers parts of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties — to UK and specified that income from its coal and timber be spent on reforestation, agriculture and education in the region.
The real money appeared 60 years later, when parts of the forest were mined. In the early 1990, A UK committee came up with the idea of giving full scholarships to students from Eastern Kentucky. They could attend either UK or community colleges. The scholars had to be first-generation college-goers who faced serious obstacles, often financial.
The program’s designers realized that first-generation college students faced more cultural obstacles than those whose families were familiar with higher education. So the students were chosen in eighth grade and received mentoring and trips to Lexington and beyond to get them used to their future college career.
“When I walked onto UK’s campus, I knew where everything was and how to do it,” Halbert said. “It was almost like you were a senior in college when you were in high school.”
Something has worked. Ninety percent of Robinson Scholars return to UK after their first year, a higher retention rate than the 81 percent of UK’s general student population. The six-year graduation rate mirrors the school, about 63 percent.
But Robinson’s endowment could not keep pace with the cost of college. In 2003, UK decided not reopen the forest for more mining because it would irreparably damage the environmental studies UK students and researchers were doing there. In addition, the forest had been designated as “lands unsuitable for mining,” which would have required litigation to undo. Instead, the university decided to rely more on private fundraising.
At first, UK cut back on the number of students chosen to one from each of 29 counties in Eastern and southeast Kentucky. In 2009, state Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, got the first funding for the program included in the state budget. About five years ago, UK stopped selecting students in eighth grade and now notifies them as seniors. Since 2013, UK has provided about $2 million to support the program.
Stivers, who is now Senate president, made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor Thursday that blamed environmental groups for the scholarship program’s decline.
“The funds ran out because of threats of litigation by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Sierra Club to not have this land mined or timbered,” said Stivers, who estimated there were $2.7 billion in mineable reserves in the forest that covers about 14,800 acres in Knott, Breathitt and Perry counties.
Robinson Scholars don’t want the program to die.
“In Eastern Kentucky, this was one of the only ways to break the cycle of poverty,” said Tyler Wells, who graduated last May with a degree in biosystems engineering. He now lives in Winchester, working for Kentucky American Water, but he spends every weekend in his native Menifee County to work with the fledgling Menifee Community Theater Group. He discovered theater as a student at UK.
“Higher education is hard to come by for low-income, first-generation students,” Wells said. “It was a life-changing experience, because this program is really based around a culture of leadership, preparing students not just for college but for success. And there has always been the expectation that with those skills, we will go back home and better our home communities.”
That’s true for Alyssa Elswick, 24, a Carter County native who’s now attending osteopathic medical school at the University of Pikeville. She said she always wanted to be a family doctor in a small Eastern Kentucky town.
“This is my home,” she said. “These are my people.”
The scholarship, she said, made that dream attainable.
“The Robinson Scholars Program wasn’t just a scholarship,” Elswick said. “It changed the lives of every student who went through the program, it changed the lives of their families, and it’s also changing the communities that our scholars are coming back to and serving.”
Of course, the state budget process has just started, and several Eastern Kentucky legislators say they will fight to continue funding for the program, one of 70 chosen for defunding.
“It’s just so disappointing that this would be targeted,” said Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg. “These are the kids we need to be helping if we care about Eastern Kentucky. This is the kind of thing we want to help as legislators, because this is a hand up, not a hand out, to kids who have earned it.”
Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, said he thinks there will be bipartisan support to keep the program. “This is a very important program, and I predict it won’t be palatable to a lot of Republicans.”