At a time when almost any story combining higher education and money is discouraging, the announcement of a $250 million gift to Centre College came as welcome, heartening news.
That the gift — from a foundation controlled by Bob Brockman, who attended Centre for two years and went on to build enormous wealth providing data services to auto dealerships — is also the largest ever made to a private liberal arts college in the United States, shines a favorable light on both Kentucky and Centre.
Most important, it will offer 40 talented students each year, who will be known as Brockman Scholars, the opportunity to attend Centre and to study abroad, at no cost to themselves or their families. They will be chosen on merit, Centre said, and most will major in economics or science.
Brockman himself, consistently media shy, was not present for the announcement and did not give interviews about the gift.
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While Centre officials are no doubt in celebration mode, they should also see this gift as an enormous responsibility to expand access to higher education.
An expert on higher education finance told the Herald-Leader's Linda Blackford that merit scholarships don't improve overall educational attainment because they generally go to middle class kids who will attend college with or without them.
This is a gift so large that it can legitimately be called game-changing. But if all it does is raise the average ACT scores of students recruited to the Danville campus by a few points, and save their beleaguered middle class parents some money, it will be nice but not transformational.
In a poor state like Kentucky, Centre can truly make a difference by using this boost to its endowment to seek out promising students who might not otherwise have a chance, and give them the opportunity to go to, and finish, college.