A generous scholarship scheme that prepares students from Eastern Kentucky for university life before funding their studies in the UK may have to end due to dwindling funds.
The Robinson Scholars Program has made higher education possible for over 750 underprivileged students from 29 eastern Kentucky counties who were the first in their families to go to university.
The scholarship provides mentoring for first-generation college goers from the eighth grade onwards to help them overcome cultural barriers that are unique to them, before studying in the UK, according to Lexicon Herald Leader.
The scholarship was originally funded by the sale of timber from the 15,000-acre Robinson Forest in Kentucky. However, as the number of trees in the forest depleted, the money pot it created shrank along with it.
The forest is an important educational resource for environmental studies at the University of Kentucky. In 2003, mining in the forest was postponed because it would irreparably damage the environmental studies UK students and researchers were doing there.
It was also designated as “lands unsuitable for mining,” which would have required litigation to undo.
This led to cutbacks in the scholarship to only one student from each Eastern Kentucky state, and a further cutback to only supporting students from senior year onwards five years ago.
In 2009, state Senator Robert Stivers managed to get funding for the program included in the state budget.
The UK has also provided about US$2 million to support the program since 2013.
And thanks to US$1 million investment from the state over the past two years, as well as private funding, the scholarship has been able to continue.
However, in Governor Matt Bevin’s two-year state budget proposal, he announced a US$1 million cut in state funding for UK scholarships.
“The Robinson Scholars program, which received US$1 million in the last biennium, also receives funding from private donors, and we are hopeful that donations will flow in so that the program can continue. Ultimately, the University of Kentucky will decide what the future of the program will be,” Jessica Fletcher, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet told Lexicon Herald Leader.
Stivers, who is now Senate president, blamed environmental groups for the scholarship program’s decline.
“The funds ran out because of threats of litigation by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Sierra Club to not have this land mined or timbered,” said Stivers, who estimated there were US$2.7 billion in mineable reserves in the forest that covers about 14,800 acres in Knott, Breathitt and Perry counties.
The scholarship has provided numerous students with the confidence and ability to access high education that would otherwise be out of reach.
“I would never have been able to go to a big university without the Robinson Scholars Program. This is what got me out of Eastern Kentucky, but it’s also what brought me back,” said Amanda Davis who is a graduate of the scheme.
“In Eastern Kentucky, this was one of the only ways to break the cycle of poverty,” said Tyler Wells, who graduated last May.
“Higher education is hard to come by for low-income, first-generation students. It was a life-changing experience, because this program is really based around a culture of leadership, preparing students not just for college but for success. And there has always been the expectation that with those skills, we will go back home and better our home communities.”
If the scholarship is not funded elsewhere, students and academics are worried that the opportunity for disadvantaged students to gain a world-class education and break out of the poverty cycle will be stripped away from them.
However, several Eastern Kentucky legislators say they will fight to continue funding for the program to allow Kentucky’s youth the educational support the scholarship provides.