University of Kentucky taking new approach to addressing student debt issues, President Capilouto says

As students struggle with school debts and often choose to leave higher education due to financial need, University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto says UK is looking to fill the gap for students to help them succeed.

A new program at the university called UK LEADS uses funds raised through donations and other outlets to pay the unmet financial need that causes many students to drop out. Capilouto told The Bottom Line the amount of unmet need someone has is the difference between their grants, scholarships, and loans and their tuition cost. And the university believes if they can shrink that gap, for example from $5,000 a year from an average of $7,000 a year, then the likelihood of retention into the next year and eventual graduation from the institution dramatically increases.

“The stories are deeply moving. As one student said, she couldn’t believe when she got the phone call. She seriously considered not coming back for her second year. She called her mother and said ‘I’m gonna come back, and more importantly, you don’t have to get the third job.’ Those are the kind of stories that move you and have been the basis of the generosity we’ve realized,” Capilouto said.

While the program has helped many students so far, Capilouto says there is more work to be done. The university has seen the peak unmet need faced by students shrink from $120 million to $90 million in the first years of the program, and he said he would like to see that continue.

Another financial issue being faced by Kentucky’s universities in recent years is the shift to a performance-based funding model for state dollars. Legislation passed in 2017 made it so universities would receive funding based on their successes in a number of categories including degrees produced, earned credit hours, student progression, and more.

The University of Kentucky has reached 10 of the 11 indicators in the last year while other universities have averaged closer to five indicators reached. When asked if he feels the model is working or if tweaks need to be made, Capilouto said he feels it is a good rulebook to work on and there are provisions built in to help struggling universities as success in all areas will not happen overnight.

Capilouto also noted that the state dollars given amount to a very small percentage of the overall budgets of the state universities with UK receiving around $267 million in state funds while their overall budget is around $4.2 billion. He stated, however, that while the dollar amount seems small in comparison, the state funds are very important to the university in many ways.

As Kentucky struggles with the scourge of opioids, the University of Kentucky has been awarded $87 million for a four-year grant to develop an evidence-based integrated strategy to reduce opioid-related overdose deaths by 40% in three years in highly affected communities. Kentucky is one of four states to be awarded money to undertake these efforts.

Capilouto said the university is currently in the beginning stages conducting serious research to find out what works and can turn the devastating numbers around.

“It’s treatment, and you’ve got to go where people are. There’s still unfortunately too much stigma and shaming around this. You know it’s not as if you can just put out a sign and people are going to show up. So, we have to go to the places where people are going to come to, we have to get to where they are to make treatment available,” Capilouto said. “And I feel the responsibility to mention, this is not a failure of character or moral judgement, it is a chronic disease.”

Watch the full interview with University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto to hear more on these issues as well as Kentucky’s workforce shortage and the other innovative programs the university is undertaking:

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