A Renewed Focus on Student Success

Our 2018-19 operating and capital budget sends a powerful message about the importance of student success.

Preliminary data suggests that UK’s retention rate for fall 2018 will approach 85 percent, while our six-year graduation rate nears 65 percent. Both are record highs as part of a five-year push in the strategic plan to reach first-year retention rates of 90 percent and graduation rates of 70 percent.

We believe this success aligns with the principles reflected in our budget. Among those is a renewed focus on addressing unmet financial need.

Our research demonstrates that students leave the institution for various reasons, of which academic success is only one. In fact, last year, one-third of students who left UK had GPAs of 3.0 or higher. Increasingly, faculty, admission officers, advisors, and financial aid staff hear from students and families who have financial challenges.

Over the last two years, in an attempt to isolate and better understand the effects of financial factors on student success, we looked at various financial variables, including, but not limited to:

  • Adjusted gross income
  • Expected family contribution
  • Gross need (the gap between cost of attendance and a family’s estimated contribution)
  • Unmet need (the gap between cost of attendance and a family’s estimated contribution and aid package)
  • Student account balance
  • Financial holds

Based on this analysis, unmet need stood out as a significant variable describing the negative effect of finances on retention. In other words, unmet financial need is often a big factor in students leaving the institution. 

In fact, the persistence rates of students with $5,000 or more in unmet financial need, is significantly lower than students with less unmet need, regardless of academic skill.

This is the rationale behind the Leveraging Economic Affordability for Developing Success (UK LEADS) program.

Equipped with these data, we began an evaluation process for a pilot project. We wanted to determine if student success could be improved through the reduction of unmet need. The goal was to identify the optimal strategy that would positively impact the greatest number of students, and, of course, then measure the implementation impact through our retention rates.

To test the effectiveness of our predictive modeling, our team tested a series of scenarios for improving retention from the first to second year.

Each scenario clustered students based on combinations of negative retention indicators with the goal of identifying those who could most benefit from additional funds. Through this process, in fall 2016, we identified a group of 178 students to pilot a one-time grant and financial counseling services, and we monitored the effect of the interventions over the following year.

Retention data for those students is displayed below.



Given the success of the program, we continued in fall 2017. Using foundation support, private philanthropy, and institutional funds, we selected 365 first-year students through a predictive model, incorporating multiple variables, which isolates the role of unmet need.

These students received one-time grants in October of this academic year, with awards ranging from $500-12,500 and an average of $7,500. This year, all one time-grant recipients were required to meet with our Student Financial Wellness Office for financial literacy and counseling.

Retention data for those students is displayed below.



Our goal is simple. We want every student who enrolls at the University of Kentucky to earn a degree.

And we ask ourselves every day how we can better support that objective.

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.