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UNC-Chapel Hill breaks new ground in college accessibility

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser has announced a groundbreaking initiative to give the children of low-income families an opportunity to attend college – without borrowing a penny.

The Carolina Covenant will enable low-income students to come to Carolina and graduate debt-free if they work on campus 10 to 12 hours weekly in a federal work-study job throughout their four years here, instead of borrowing. The university will meet the rest of students’ needs through a combination of federal, state, university and private grants and scholarships.

Carolina already meets 100 percent of the documented financial need of all students who apply for aid on time, but about a third of that need is being met through loans. To fund the Carolina Covenant, the university will make modest reallocations of existing funds in the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid and pledge growing private gifts dedicated to low-income students. The initiative is expected to cost about $1.38 million annually when fully phased in four years from now.

Carolina is believed to be the first public university in America to launch such an initiative to make college more accessible. Princeton, a private university, has also done much to alleviate the need for student borrowing.

The Carolina Covenant will go into effect next fall for the incoming freshman class of 2004. Eligible students must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Under current federal poverty levels, a family of four with an annual income of about $28,000 would qualify. For a single parent with one child, the eligible income would be about $18,000.

Moeser announced the innovative access initiative in his annual State of the University speech to the campus community Oct. 1. "College should be possible for everyone who can make the grade, regardless of family income," he said. "A covenant is a promise. With the Carolina Covenant, we are telling students that, despite what you may see in the news, college is affordable, no matter how much money your family makes."

Moeser credited Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid, and Jerry Lucido, vice provost for enrollment management and director of undergraduate admissions, for their vision in crafting this new initiative.

"We know that too many prospective students – especially first-generation students – may not be pursuing the opportunity because they don’t think their families can afford college," Ort said. "This initiative will help reverse that trend."

Studies show that the cost of college is rising steadily for low-income families. Nationally, the average student loan debt has nearly doubled to $17,000 over the past decade. About one-fifth of full-time students work 35 or more hours a week. As a result, many low-income youth abandon plans for college – or drop out – because the burden of that debt and workload is too much. The patterns are even stronger among minority students, experts say. Research also shows that low-income families need more information – and greater predictability – about the availability of financial aid.

Moeser cited the state of the economy and the rising number of families living in poverty as evidence of the need for the Carolina Covenant. Since one in four North Carolina children now live in poverty, the need for an accessibility initiative like the Carolina Covenant will remain strong, Moeser said. According to the N.C. Children’s Index of 2002, more than one-third of North Carolina’s families made less than $28,000 a year in 1999, the last year data were available.

This fall, 281 of UNC-Chapel Hill’s freshmen – 8 percent of the freshman class – came from low-income families. Most of those – 89 percent – were from North Carolina. More than half were minorities. Federal and state financial aid covered about 60 percent of the college costs of those students.

The Carolina Covenant will supplement the university’s long-standing program of providing generous financial assistance to needy students and need-blind admissions, referring to the practice of granting admission to qualified applicants without consideration of their family’s ability to pay.

UNC-Chapel Hill has worked hard to bring low-income students to campus, Lucido said. In the last three years, the number of low-income students enrolling as freshmen rose by 20 percent. In recent years, when the university enacted a campus-based tuition increase, it dedicated 35 percent of the receipts to aid for needy students, and every needy student received a grant to cover any campus-based tuition increase.

Undergraduate student borrowing at Carolina has declined. The average indebtedness among undergraduates dropped from $13,687 in 1999 – prior to campus-based tuition increases beginning – to $12,314 in 2002.

But that’s not enough, Moeser said. "As the first public university in America, Carolina has always been committed to access," he said. "With the Carolina Covenant, we are strengthening our commitment to ensure that families from all income levels can afford a Carolina education."

The Carolina Covenant is the second major national initiative UNC-Chapel Hill has launched to benefit students. Starting with freshmen applying for admission this fall, UNC became the nation’s first major American public university to eliminate its binding early decision admissions plan.

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Related releases: See News Services release 507 for a round-up of notable quotes from national, state and university officials about the Carolina Covenant.