Op-Ed

Donation a big boost in keeping Ky. students at UK

Mira Ball, with late husband, Don, recently donated $10 million to the University of Kentucky, the single largest scholarship gift in the university’s history.
Mira Ball, with late husband, Don, recently donated $10 million to the University of Kentucky, the single largest scholarship gift in the university’s history. University of Kentucky

When we describe our progress in higher education, we often do so in numbers.

For example, at the University of Kentucky, our graduation rate and retention rate — the success of students returning from one year to the next — are now at record highs and are the highest among public universities in Kentucky. But what’s more important is what those numbers represent:

▪ More Kentuckians prepared with the skills and training to join the workforce.

▪ More Kentuckians equipped to support their families and give back to their communities.

▪ More Kentuckians poised to show the world what Kentucky can do.

These gains are being propelled by our efforts to assist students and families with financial need — a pursuit strengthened recently by philanthropist Mira Ball.

Ball and her late husband, Don, created one of the country’s most successful home-building businesses while . giving back in ways that strengthen lives and build communities.

The $10 million is the single-largest scholarship gift in UK’s history. It will support the nationally heralded UK Leveraging Economic Affordability for Developing Success (LEADS) initiative, with a preference for students from Nelson and Henderson counties (The Balls’ home counties).

The gift — part of the Don and Mira Ball Endowed Scholarship Program — will fund dozens of scholarships, focused specifically on addressing unmet financial need. We know this gift will make a lasting impact. We’ve already seen what UK LEADS can do, what it can mean for our state.

We launched the UK LEADS in 2016, after a review of internal data suggested that students with $5,000 or more in unmet need (the amount remaining after the expected family contribution and all other aid) had a significantly higher risk of not returning to the institution, irrespective of their academic success.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, we have an obligation to enhance access and affordability for our students. Unmet need is a challenge worth combating. That’s why the program is a cornerstone of UK’s comprehensive philanthropy campaign — “Kentucky Can: The 21st Century Campaign for UK.”

Over the last two years, a pilot program has impacted approximately 500 students, producing retention rates exceeding predictions by almost 20 percentage points. That’s a significantly higher number of students returning to the university to earn a degree that will positively impact their lives and amplify their career trajectories.

Again, the number provides a compelling measure of success. But the impact truly manifests in the student, clad in a cap and gown, crossing the commencement stage at Rupp Arena, as more than 1,200 did recently.

We have more work ahead. We estimate that nearly $60 million of unmet financial need exists among students from Kentucky alone.

Improving access and affordability is critical to bolstering the commonwealth’s economy. States with college graduation rates above the national average have higher per capita incomes and generally better health statistics and outcomes. By better addressing the financial needs of many of our students, Kentucky can produce the educated citizenry needed to move our state forward.

Through UK LEADS, we believe we are addressing one of the most important issues intentionally and directly. That’s our promise to our students and their families; it is our commitment to the state and broader society that we serve.

It’s Ball’s vision for a brighter Kentucky. It’s how we show the world what Kentucky can do.

Eli Capilouto is president of the University of Kentucky.

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