UNC-Chapel Hill wins $1 million Cooke Prize

The son of Mexican immigrants who were unable to earn a higher education degree, Isai Garcia-Baza was raised to believe that college was undoubtedly in his future.

As he got older, however, he realized the path to higher education would be more challenging — and expensive — than he once thought. But through the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program and the Carolina Covenant, Garcia-Baza became the first member of his family to earn a college degree this past May.

“I could see that UNC was committed to not only bringing in students, but to helping them reach that goal,” he said.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s years of dedication to providing support and opportunities for thousands of students like Garcia-Baza was recognized June 19 when the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awarded Carolina with the 2017 Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence.

“It’s not just something that we want to do, it’s really something that we must do,” Chancellor Carol L. Folt said. “It is our responsibility to create access and opportunity and open those wide for people to come through and be successful.”

Carolina is the first public university to receive the Cooke Foundation’s $1 million award, which recognizes success in enrolling low-income students and supporting them through graduation. The Cooke Foundation is a private organization that supports exceptional students from elementary school to graduate school through scholarships, grants and direct service.

UNC-Chapel Hill is “doing an outstanding job of admitting and graduating high-achieving, low-income students,” said Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Cooke Foundation “The University has given generous financial aid and many additional programs to attract these students and help them graduate.”

During a brief ceremony at the Carolina Inn, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions Stephen Farmer announced that the University will match the foundation’s award through private funding, and will use the $2 million to expand its programs that benefit low-income students.

“We are here not only to celebrate and give thanks for the vision and generosity of this remarkable foundation, we’re here to look forward to the future and the difference that the Cooke Prize will help us make in the lives of future students and by extension, the lives of our state and our nation,” Farmer said.

From guaranteeing admission for high-achieving, low-income transfer students from community colleges to partnering with high schools to increase college enrollment across the state, creating access and opportunity for higher education has long been a core mission for the University.

Over the years, Carolina has dedicated millions of dollars and resources to recruit, retain and support low-income students through a variety of programs both on campus and throughout the state.

The Carolina College Advising Corps has partnered with high schools throughout the state to inspire students to pursue post-secondary education for a decade. The program, which began with just four advisors at eight high schools, has grown to reach 76 high schools.

Carolina’s First Look aims to introduce students to higher education even earlier by inviting middle school students to Chapel Hill to get their first taste of college life to better prepare themselves for the possibility of attending college.

For Garcia-Baza, the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program was his way to UNC-Chapel Hill. The program, which guarantees admission to Carolina for low-income students who have fulfilled required courses at community colleges, allowed Garcia-Baza to begin his college career without a large financial burden.

“Those two years were very formative for me and I got that college experience at a much lower cost,” he said.

Other initiatives, such as the Carolina Covenant program, continue to support the students throughout their time in Chapel Hill. The program, which benefits more than 13 percent of the student body, guarantees debt-free education to eligible low-income students.

“In addition to helping to pay for tuition, fees, room, board, they make available travel, health insurance, personal expenses, books and supplies,” Levy said. “This is extraordinary and goes head and shoulders beyond what other institutions are doing.”

Now, with the help of the Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence, Carolina will be able to step up its efforts of providing access and support to its low-income students.

“We want these students to leave Chapel Hill knowing that they’re loved and respected for being the unique people they are,” Farmer said. “We want them to leave here having done all that they came here to do. We want them to leave having made everyone around them better through their brilliance, through their diversity of perspective and experience, through their willingness to open their hearts to one another and to those who meet them across our state and throughout our nation and our world.”

Story by Brandon Bieltz, photos by Jon Gardiner and video by Carly Swain, University Communications
Published June 19, 2017