As I near the end of my time as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I am honored to be "graduating" along with the very first class of Carolina Covenant Scholars, many of whom received their diplomas at Commencement on May 11.
Back in 2003, Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid, worried that North Carolina's brightest high school students were not applying to Carolina because -- given reports of tuition increases -- they did not believe their families could afford to send them here.
Income should not be a barrier when it comes to educating the leaders of tomorrow. As the late North Carolina statesman and former governor Terry Sanford said, "If you have the will and the skill, we will not let lack of money deny you a college education."
Shirley and I knew we needed to send the message to these students that as long as they had the grades and the talent to get admitted to Carolina, the University would take care of finding the money, through a combination of grants, scholarships and work-study.
By proposing a way for these deserving students to graduate debt-free, Carolina has demonstrated once again that we have both the will and the way. It is called the Carolina Covenant -- our promise of an opportunity for a debt-free education. We were the first public university in the country to offer this no-loan financial aid package to students, but more than 80 similar programs have sprung up since then at other public and private universities and colleges. By the time the first class was preparing to graduate earlier this month, we had 1,384 Covenant Scholars on our campus.
By definition, the Covenant offers financial aid to students whose family income does not exceed 200 percent of the poverty level (150 percent for the first class), or about $41,300 annually for a family of four. Because they do not have to worry about taking out student loans or working full-time jobs to pay for tuition or books, Covenant Scholars can concentrate on their studies. They are also encouraged to use their financial aid for the study abroad programs that Carolina provides for more than one-third of its students, an opportunity most of these students had only dreamed of before the Covenant.
Graduating debt-free has opened so many doors for our graduating Covenant Scholars. Hoda Imeni Kashani of Burlington, for instance, plans to attend the UNC School of Dentistry and return to a rural area near her town to serve low-income patients. Michele Clark of Fuquay-Varina wants to work for a nonprofit, something she can afford to do because she is not facing a mountain of debt. Jeremy Felton of Morehead City will be able to take advantage of a scholarship to attend graduate school in chemistry rather than work to pay off loans.
The Carolina Covenant is much more than a student aid program, however. The Covenant is enriching our university by bringing in students that otherwise might never have set foot on the Chapel Hill campus. More than half of Covenant Scholars, for example, are the first in their families to attend college. Recognizing that college is a new experience for many of our Covenant Scholars, the program also offers them support in other areas, such as mentoring, time management, note-taking, etiquette dinners, career workshops and so on. About 60 percent of the Covenant Scholars are also people of color, which is helping our campus increase the diversity of its student population and improve the quality of its undergraduate experience.
Most important, the Carolina Covenant is an ethical and moral commitment that fits our core values as a public university. As I have learned from living in Chapel Hill for the past eight years, this community shares these same values. People here stop Susan and me to tell us they are proud the University made it possible for these students to attend. Long after my time as Chancellor has ended, the Carolina Covenant will continue, offering hope and opportunity to students across the state and around the country.
James Moeser is chancellor of the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. He welcomes readers’ messages