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UNC taps success in N.C. to lead national conversation on access in higher education for low-income students

The Carolina Covenant, which guarantees a debt-free education for qualified low-income students, is widely recognized as a national model for innovation.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the first major public university to launch such a program. More than two dozen public and private U.S. universities from coast to coast have followed suit.

Now in its third year, the Carolina Covenant is for eligible students and families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That covers a family of four making $37,000 annually or a single parent with a child at $24,000. More than 900 students have benefited so far. The Carolina Covenant is more than just a financial aid program; it includes faculty and peer mentor components to prepare students for lifetime success.

This month, the UNC-Chapel Hill program's record in providing opportunities to deserving North Carolina students further guided the national conversation about providing access to higher education for low-income families.

About 150 state and federal policymakers, economists, researchers, foundation and business leaders and educators from across the country gathered at UNC for "The Politics of Inclusion: Higher Education at a Crossroads," a conference seeking national solutions to the complex issues surrounding access and affordability in American higher education. Attendees exchanged ideas that organizers said would help shape national policy and practice. Sponsors were the Lumina Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the College Foundation of North Carolina. Papers presented at the conference Sept. 10-13 will be published later in a book to help inform future discussions.

Panelists tackled topics including the changing demographics of American higher education; economic, political and social objectives of higher education in the 21st century; the politics of who goes to college and where; challenges threatening access to college; and new ways to foster access and inclusion.

Conference participants agreed that now is the time for colleges and universities to step up their efforts to partner with K-12 schools to better address problems associated with helping qualified low-income students, among other issues.

"Our goal was to stimulate action," said UNC Chancellor James Moeser, the conference's keynote speaker. "These exchanges have planted the seeds of ideas that we believe are taking hold as our participants left with fresh perspectives."

Among the materials attendees took home was the first compilation detailing the more than 20 new student aid initiatives serving low- to moderate-income students. UNC-Chapel Hill officials already have helped many of the other campuses developing programs based on their experiences with the Carolina Covenant. The conference included a hands-on workshop for financial aid officers implementing new programs.

Speakers included Gaston Caperton, president of The College Board and former West Virginia governor; William Bowen, senior research associate and president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and Andrea Bazán-Manson, president of the Triangle Community Foundation.

Conference speakers outlined the trends that concern educators. For example, as the gap grows between the wealthiest U.S. families and the poorest, the disparity between the college-going rate of students by income levels rises sharply, Moeser said. By age 24, 75 percent of students from the top of the family income scale earn at least a bachelor's degree compared with less than 9 percent of low-income students.

"The new technologies, innovations and businesses in the 21st century will be created by highly educated people, and as a country we are not doing enough," Moeser said. "These people are our intellectual capital and we need them for our nation to thrive and grow."

Moeser described the Carolina Covenant as a response to the needs of North Carolina, with its rapidly shifting economy, population growth and demographics, as well as a poverty rate ranking of 14th nationally. Increased support from the General Assembly for need-based financial aid across the UNC system - even in lean budget times - was a key factor in the university's ability to launch the program, he said. Other funding sources include the federal government, revenue from the university and private gifts.

The overriding message of the Carolina Covenant is simple, Moeser said. "If you do the necessary work in high school, apply for admission and get accepted, we will provide the means. To paraphrase the late North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford, we say to these young people, 'If you have the will, we have the way.'"

Related links:
http://www.unc.edu/inclusion
http://www.unc.edu/carolinacovenant

To view photos from the conference, visit: http://www.unc.edu/inclusion/photos.html


 


Chancellor James Moeser speaks at "The Politics of Inclusion: Higher Education at a Crossroads" conference in Chapel Hill.