-- An initiative to increase the number of people with college degrees appears to be growing in popularity among landlocked Appalachians who live hours from the nearest state universities.

Enrollment at the University Center of the Mountains, a fledgling program in a region known for low educational attainment, is expected to top 300 this fall and could reach 1,000 in the next five years, said Ron Daley, who heads the initiative.

Daley said only 8.6 percent of residents in the eight-county service area have four-year degrees, making it one of the least-educated regions of the country.

"We have been left behind in getting bachelor's degrees because of a lack of access to state universities," he said. "The distances to state universities make it impossible for many people to attend."

Daley said the closest universities -- Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky -- are four-hour round-trip drives, which means only people who move from Hazard and adjacent counties can attend the main campuses.

That is why a group of Hazard area leaders who lobbied for years for the creation of a new public university settled instead for the University Center of the Mountains. The center, conceived three years ago and started with a $300,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, provides offices and classrooms for state universities and private colleges to provide a full slate of classes for bachelor's degree programs in 15 areas of study, including business administration and social work.

"If we're going to improve the quality of life in the mountains, we've got to educate our people," said Hazard's mayor, Bill Gorman.

Gorman was one of the local leaders who had been pushing for a public university in southeastern Kentucky. He said the University Center of the Mountains was the best alternative to an actual four-year institution.

Jay Box, the president of Hazard Community and Technical College, who helped to found the center, said he expects the number of degree programs to grow as enrollment increases. He said he expects many of the 3,800 students enrolled in the two-year college to take courses through the center.

"At full maturity, we'll see multiple universities offering multiple degrees," Box said.

Teresa Breeding of Hazard wanted a bachelor's degree to advance her career, but she said she could not afford to quit her job as a secretary to move closer to a four-year college. The University Center of the Mountains resolved her problem.

"It's close to home," she said. "It gives me time to spend with my family."

Breeding is scheduled to graduate next year with a degree from Morehead State. She said it would have taken several more years taking one or two classes a semester at off-campus centers in Jackson and Prestonsburg.

Daley said census figures show the center is necessary. The percentage of people with bachelor's degrees in the eight-county area in 2000 lagged far behind the state average of 17.1 percent and the national average of 24.4 percent.

The percentage of high school graduates in the area increased from 45.3 percent to 57.1 percent between 1990 and 2000. Although still far short of the national average of 80.4 percent, the improvement has increased the number of potential college students in the area, Daley said.

The University Center of the Mountains will give those potential students the opportunity to earn degrees that were previously unavailable.

"There was this huge, invisible wall keeping people from getting bachelor's degrees," Daley said. "The universities have agreed to tear down that wall."