COLUMN: A smart investment

On Monday, Dec. 14, Eastern Kentucky University removed another barrier from getting a college degree with our announcement that all undergraduate students would get their textbooks for free.

The program is called EKU BookSmart, and it’s a vital part of growing our enrollment with the EKU Advantage. (find out more at advantage.eku.edu).

We want to make sure we are providing anyone who wants to come and better themselves through higher education the best opportunity for success and EKU BookSmart does just that. Books run on average about $1,200 per year, but for the 2021-2022 academic year, they’ll be free to undergraduate students at EKU, whether they’re online or in-person at any of our campuses.

One of the things that we pride ourselves on at EKU is being the “School of Opportunity.” We say “School of Opportunity” a lot here at EKU because it is one of the foundational values that guides our actions every single day.

I am a living, breathing example of what opportunity at Eastern Kentucky University looks like because I was a first-generation student from Eastern Kentucky when I came here 25 years ago with hopes, dreams and ambitions that were nurtured into reality by the outstanding faculty, staff and campus community.

Just a quick story about my EKU experience.

I vividly remember my parents dropping me off at Keene Hall in the fall of 1996 to start my EKU journey. I didn’t have a car, and neither did my best friend, and then college roommate, from back home.

I had registered for classes. I was taking five. I had done well in school and had some scholarship money, but I hadn’t gotten my books yet. And it was at that point that I told my parents that I needed money for books.

We were a working-class family and, like most of my peers, on a budget. I still remember the sticker shock when I explained to them at the bookstore just how much books were going to cost (now a quarter century ago). I did get my books that semester, and I worked throughout the semester and all through the summer every year after to make sure I had a textbook fund.

Free is a powerful word in advertising, but it’s an even more powerful word when it might be the difference between being able to eat and buying textbooks, or having electricity and buying textbooks. That’s not hyperbole, those are real-life choices for many of our Eastern students.

And just because someone doesn’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to give back to their communities and to their own families through the power of education. That’s why this is a critical investment into our students at a time when students need it most.

When I was named president in August, this was one of the ideas from the president’s council that really resonated with me — for obvious and personal reasons.

We have spent the last decade investing in high-tech classroom buildings, brand-new residence halls and an amazing, state-of-the-art recreational facility. All of those investments are vital to give our students the best possible college experience, and with a transformed campus, we can be extremely competitive with other schools as far as academic offerings, residence hall life and a great campus experience.

But part of our job as the School of Opportunity is to make sure that everyone who is seeking to get a college degree and is willing to put in the hard work will have a chance to come to EKU. And when they leave here with a degree, they can then take their new skills and knowledge back to their communities or to a new community to make Kentucky a better place to live, work and raise a family.

Making textbooks free was our way of making an investment in the future of Kentucky, and far beyond. We plan to keep looking for ways to invest in our students because we consider it an investment in our local community and in our country.

Our graduates are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, in police stations and firehouses, in hospitals, in classrooms, in newsrooms, in businesses large or small, and in so many other places.

They truly power our communities, and this is one more way to show them that we believe in them and we are investing in their success here at EKU.