WINCHESTER - Hannah Moore graduated from George Rogers Clark High School this year with all the right boxes checked off for college acceptance: a 4.0 GPA, National Honor Society member, cheerleader and community volunteer.
Moore, who lives with her mother, always dreamed of going to the University of Kentucky, but in the end she didn't bother applying. It was "out of reach."
Moore knew her standardized test scores weren't high enough to earn her most of UK's merit-based scholarships, and she couldn't afford the $25,400 it costs to attend for a year without taking on lots of debt.
"I would really like to go there, but they barely give any money for anything," she said. "It's really competitive."
Instead, she's heading to Eastern Kentucky University, where she won a scholarship that pays some of her tuition and fees.
Moore is part of a growing group of students who can't consider UK, said her guidance counselor Robin Detring, as the state's flagship university shifts resources away from assisting low-income students and toward chasing top scholars.
"We try to show them where scholarships are," Detring said, "but the bar has risen so high with merit-based aid it's changed a lot in the past several years."
The numbers bear that out. In the past seven years, the amount of undergraduate financial aid based solely on merit at UK has risen 149 percent, compared to just 46 percent for aid based on need alone. Of the nearly $70 million UK gave in institutional aid this past school year, less than 4 percent was earmarked solely for students who need financial help to attend college.
Meanwhile, UK data shows that nearly one in four students who got financial aid in the 2011-2012 school year had no financial need under federal guidelines.
UK's shift toward merit aid - a trend mirrored around the country - has increased the divide between the haves and have-nots in higher education, many experts say, which means many talented Kentuckians can no longer afford their top college choice.
UK President Eli Capilouto said the university will always put Kentuckians first, but the university has chosen a thoughtful way forward in the face of state budget cuts.
"Growing our enrollment and enhancing our commitment to diversity at all levels - including attracting qualified students from outside our state - strengthens the sense of community we can build, enhances the education we provide and helps us ensure affordability," he said in a statement.
For decades, private universities have used their financial aid as leverage to attract the top students and raise their rankings.
For UK, that reality is legislative and public pressure to raise rankings while the school absorbs $55 million in state funding cuts since 2008. This year, for the first time, less than 10 percent of UK's overall budget will come from the state.