Op-Ed

Want to keep the best and brightest in Kentucky? Invest in higher education

Mercer County High School students learned about isolating DNA by watching Dr. Tianyan Gao during “Meet to Researchers Day” at University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center in April.
Mercer County High School students learned about isolating DNA by watching Dr. Tianyan Gao during “Meet to Researchers Day” at University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center in April.

When I think about what’s at stake for Kentucky, in my mind’s eye, I see Jake Ingram.

Jake graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2015. He was an outstanding student who served as a leader and earned a mechanical engineering degree. He always dreamed of being an astronaut. But as he grew up, he realized it wasn’t his destiny to fly a spacecraft. He would build it.

Now, he is working for Space X in California, figuring out how to get us to Mars.

Jake believes UK gave him the tools to succeed. And when you look at his Instagram feed, you discover that while his mind is soaring around the galaxy, his heart has not left Kentucky.

How do we ensure Kentuckians like Jake have the option to stay? How does Kentucky, whether in space or on the assembly line, become the creator of ideas and the assembler of parts? Those questions — and their answers — will require us to rethink how we provide education and contribute to the success of our economy.

Gov. Matt Bevin and lawmakers are in the unenviable position of confronting soaring pension and health-care costs, growing from less than 20 percent of the budget a decade ago to nearly one-third now.

However, if we do not continue to invest in education, we not only risk the promise of the next Jake Ingram; we shortchange our ability to create the jobs that keep him in Kentucky.

In return for the state’s investment, UK is rethinking how we renew our commitment to Kentucky. I suggest three pillars of a renewed compact:

▪ We must commit to continue being an essential partner in the state’s economic development. With the leadership of Bevin and Economic Development Secretary Terry Gill, the commonwealth recruited EnerBlu, a high-tech energy company making a $400-million investment producing 1,000 jobs, to develop advanced manufacturing operations in Pikeville, and research and development in Lexington.

UK played a key role in EnerBlu’s recruitment, pointing to nearly 40 industrial partnerships in the last three years with our College of Engineering and other innovative work at our Center for Applied Energy Research, where we are prototyping new battery and energy solutions.

▪ We must continue to be a leader in finding solutions to health-care challenges. Life expectancy in America has now dropped for two straight years. Drug overdoses — particularly those from opioids — are among the primary drivers.

From new drugs that curb the addictive power of opioids to community and clinical interventions, UK is investing millions of dollars to stem the tide of abuse. This past year, UK had nearly $350 million in research and development expenditures. The American Cancer Society estimates that 1.7 million cancer deaths were averted between 1991 and 2012 because of research, treatment, detection and prevention. Could we double that number?

▪ We should educate more students, ensuring they are equipped to learn for life in jobs they will create. Today, we educate more than 30,000 students. In the last six years, we have more than doubled scholarships, and we have started a nationally recognized program to address unmet financial need. This year, we expect to graduate about 6,700 students.

Since 2011, we have increased the number of bachelor’s degrees by nearly 25 percent. We have graduated nearly 36 percent more low-income students and more than 120 percent more underrepresented minorities. Between 2011 and 2016, UK increased the number of bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, math and health-related fields by nearly 56 percent.

The economic imperative for this growth — and the moral imperative to sustain it — is clear: The unemployment rate of a college graduate is half that of someone with only a high-school degree and there is a $1 million difference in lifetime earnings.

The challenges confronting our state loom large. But it is, nevertheless, time to double down on dreaming big. We were founded more than 150 years ago to be the University for Kentucky. But we owe it to those we serve to rethink what that means in the 21st century.

We are asking the tough questions about how best to do that. It is time for us, together, to find the answers.

Eli Capilouto is president of the University of Kentucky.

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