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After missing his shot at college, Graham Rahal keeps high priority on higher education

Graham Rahal college

Graham Rahal still has the letter signifying when his college dream essentially ended before it ever truly started.

“I think it’s huge to go, and it was always my full intention,” Rahal, 33, told NBC Sports. “I applied. I was accepted. In fact, I found my letter when I kept deferring, and they were finally like, ‘Hey, you’re like 30 years old, you can’t defer anymore. You have to reapply.’ ”

Rahal, of course, did not resubmit an application to Dennison University (a liberal arts college in Granville, Ohio, where his father, Bobby, went before winning the 1986 Indy 500), having already established a career in the NTT IndyCar Series that began when he was 18.

The six-time IndyCar winner is ninth in the points standings four races into his 16th season and soon will begin preparations for his 15th start in the Indy 500 (the 106th running will take place May 29 with coverage starting at 11 a.m. ET on NBC).

But Rahal’s passion for getting an education also remains strong and was evident as he helped Fifth Third Bank (which co-sponsors his No. 15 Dallara-Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) with a promotion for establishing college funds.

“College is a great asset,” Rahal said. “I think it’s also important to have a balance and understand working because the common sense of real life sometimes is eye-opening, too.

“But I think (college is) really, really important and also with tuition just climbing so much that we’ve got to be prepared as a society for our kids. And I think parents as best as possible need to help plan for that, too.”

Rahal visited three Indianapolis area hospitals Tuesday as Fifth Third celebrated its namesake day (May 3) by providing the parents of 77 newborns across 19 health systems with $1,053 gift cards to open a 529 college savings account (in partnership with the Gift of College).

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver also delivered gift boxes (with onesies, sleep sacks and self-care items for moms) and helped provide baked treats for maternity ward nurses.

“These people that had babies last night or this morning, probably the last thing they want to do is see me walk into their room after delivering a baby,” Rahal said. “But in the case that they do, this will turn on a light bulb for them that, ‘Oh wow, I can put in a hundred bucks this year. Or maybe I can afford to put in a thousand bucks. Maybe I can afford to put 10 bucks in, but it’s something, and it makes a difference.”

It also hits home for Rahal, who became a father 18 months ago to Harlan. Wife Courtney is due with their second child in mid-September.

As “a planner,” Graham would like to know the gender but said, “I’d imagine we will find out the minute it pops out because Courtney is very particular about not knowing, and that’s fine. It was probably one of life’s greatest surprises. This time I’d like to be prepared.”

Naturally, he already has begun preparing for Harlan’s future by alternating annual investments between a traditional savings plan and a 529 college fund (which is tax-advantaged.

“With Harlan to have her education is so critical to her success as a person and professionally, whatever she so decides to do in 25 years, God knows what that may be,” Rahal said. “My grandparents did a lot to help us, and so yes, it does hit home.

“When Fifth Third first approached me and said, ‘This is what we’re thinking about doing,’ it was quite clearly a yes from me because I literally am living this at this time, and I realize that maybe some people have the ability to put in more than others, but every bit helps and getting prepared and thinking down the road is what you need to be doing.”

Amid skyrocketing tuition costs and a spirited national discussion over how long a pause on federal college loans (which began during the pandemic) will continue, Rahal said he was focused on raising awareness of his belief that a small contribution now “can make a big difference 20 years from now.

“In my case, 18 years from now when (Harlan) goes off to college, hopefully, it’s paid for,” he said. “And God knows with the prices of college and everything else climbing the way it has, but hopefully you get ahead of it, and when the time comes, there’s no stress there.”