Access to college access has become a major issue for our nation's students. The National Center for Educational Statistics found that the average ratio of students to guidance counselors nationally is 488 to 1. Research shows that low-income and first-generation students are particularly underserved during the college application process.
Low-income high school graduates who score in the top quartile on standardized tests attend college at the same rate as high-income high school graduates in the bottom quartile. The difference in rates of admission to college is due, in part, to lower-income students' lack of access to information about the basics of how to get there -- testing, applications and financial aid.
This fall, more low-income, high-achieving students than ever before are overcoming these access issues and making college possible, with the help of two UNC programs -- the Carolina Covenant and the Carolina College Advising Corps.
The Carolina Covenant is our ground-breaking guarantee to low-income students who are accepted here that they can pursue undergraduate degrees debt-free. We cover their education-related expenses up to the level of their need -- room, board and books in addition to tuition -- through a combination of grants, scholarships, federal work-study funds, private gifts and other university funding.
Our first class of Carolina Covenant Scholars will graduate next May. Between 360 and 400 freshmen joined the program this fall, for a total of about 1,390 Covenant Scholars overall. A mentoring program that is part of Carolina Covenant is helping to keep these scholars in college at a higher rate than would otherwise be expected, based on comparisons to a control group of similar students.
The students who are eligible for the Carolina Covenant are those whose family incomes are below 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- this year, $40,000 for a family of four. (For the first class, in 2004, eligibility stopped at 150 percent, but we expanded the program for its second year.) These students are often the first in their families to attend college. Because of the Covenant, they graduate debt-free, which means that they not only spare their family the cost of tuition and books, but they also can start their careers or go on to graduate school without facing the burden of repaying a large student loan.
Carolina Covenant students come from 98 of North Carolina's 100 counties. Some of them are your neighbors: 75 are from Orange County; 46 are from Durham County; and six are from Chatham County.
The Carolina College Advising Corps is another way the university is helping to turn college dreams into reality for low-income students in North Carolina. Housed in Carolina's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, this program places recent Carolina graduates as college advisers in high schools around the state -- not to recruit students to Carolina, but to encourage them to go to college.
This academic year, four recent Carolina graduates are serving eight high schools in Durham, Chatham, Alamance and Guilford counties; next year nine advisers will serve 18 schools across the state. These recent graduates will work one-on-one with any student who seeks their counsel, with an eye towards helping these students -- many of whom will be the first in their families to consider higher education -- find a school that is right for them.
This Carolina Corps is part of the National College Advising Corps, a program funded in part by $10 million from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The national corps also has its central office in Carolina's Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
Now active on 11 campuses, the Advising Corps is the first national effort led by colleges and universities that places recent graduates in high schools to increase access to higher education for first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students. The corps' first national training session was held here in early August.
These young graduates are also powerful examples of what their high school protégés can achieve -- mentors and models that the students can aspire to follow into some form of higher education. Carolina is pleased to be leading this effort, and our graduates have answered the call.
Access to higher education is far from just the fulfillment of a personal dream, however. Research shows that by 2015, 85 percent of all jobs will require employees to have a post-high school education. Assuring access for these students is not a dream. It is the best way to prepare for the reality of the future we all face.
James Moeser is chancellor of the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. He welcomes readers’ messages