The University of Kentucky Athletics Department said Monday that it would provide $500,000 in additional funding for need-based academic scholarships in Eastern Kentucky, in particular for the university's Robinson Scholars program.
The additional money means that UK athletics will be kicking in $1.7 million a year to non-athletic scholarships.
The recent media contract between ESPN and the Southeastern Conference schools will allow UK athletics to step up its scholarship support, said Rob Mullens, UK deputy athletics director.
The Robinson Scholars program was established in 1997 and initially served 162 students; it identifies promising students as they enter high school, works with them during the next four years and offers them a full scholarship to UK. Many Robinson Scholars have been the first students in their families to attend college.
But the number of Robinson Scholars had dwindled to 29 — one per county served. The infusion of funds from the athletics contribution should help UK boost that to three per county.
"UK athletics is so pleased that we're able to keep the flow back to the university and its students," Mullens said.
UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. said that university sports create "a lasting band" that keeps alumni linked to the university after graduation: "If we did not have that band, I don't think we would get a lot of the students we get. .... I want to thank athletics for continuing to do what it's done."
State Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said the Robinson Scholars program "has been really special for our folks. ... something that will pay dividends for many generations to come."
Todd was asked whether the athletics department could do more for university academics.
"We could milk them more if we wanted to," Todd replied, calling the athletics department's support of the university "competitive."
"I have never asked (athletics director) Mitch Barnhart for something he hasn't provided," Todd said.
Kasha Middleton, 19, a UK freshman from Elliott County, says she has benefited from the years of Robinson Scholar mentoring.
The oldest of three children, she credits the Robinson program with giving her a better set of academic and social skills than many incoming freshmen: "With Robinson Scholars, you build connections with each class."