A Covenant With Students

Chapel Hill starts to see success with its program to enroll those at the lowest income levels.
April 5, 2005

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill set off something of a movement in October 2003 when it announced changes in its aid policies that would guarantee low-income students enough grant money that they could have their full costs covered – without borrowing.

While the most prestigious private institutions in the country (which also happen to be the wealthiest) have been improving their aid programs dramatically in recent years, Chapel Hill -- by creating a program for those with family incomes up to 150 percent of the poverty level -- started things moving for public universities. Since Chapel Hill announced its shift, similar programs or other major aid efforts have been announced by the Universities of Virginia, Michigan, Maryland and Nebraska, among others.

The first students who benefited from Carolina’s program enrolled in the fall semester -- and the university has been undertaking a major research effort to see who they are and how the aid program makes a difference. The results so far suggest that the lowest income students are well prepared academically, and can succeed at top universities. And the economic analysis of these students shows just how stratified top public universities have become by income, and how out of reach those universities can become without ambitious efforts by universities.

Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of student aid at Chapel Hill, notes that the average family income for those who are eligible for the program there is $13,400 -- about $400 less than the estimated costs for a year at Chapel Hill for North Carolina residents.

Ort is particularly proud of the academic success the students are achieving and of the pride they are expressing in their accomplishments. Higher education is coming out of years of public debate over affirmative action and conservative criticism of some aid programs. So Ort said that the university has made it clear to everyone that the scholarships go to students who are admitted to Chapel Hill on their merits -- and whose only roadblock is lack of funds.

The program is called the " Carolina Covenant" and students who qualify are called "Covenant Scholars." While scholarship recipients are more diverse than the university as a whole, and a majority are not white, there are more white than black participants in the program.

Recipients say that the setup has made their status a point of pride, not stigma. "My parents and my family are hard-working, but we don’t have a lot of money," says Kapa Yang, a freshman from Newton, N.C., who is one of eight children in an immigrant family. "This is a way of the university saying, 'We're going to get you through.' "

Says Ort: "People act in the way you label them, so we wanted the right labels."

Chapel Hill started its program with students who come from families up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, and enrolled 225 this academic year as freshmen. In interviews with university officials, many have said that they would have attended community colleges or other commuter institutions if they had been forced to borrow to attend Chapel Hill.

"Chapel Hill was my first choice, but I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it," says Laquisha McWilliams, a freshman from Rocky Mount, N.C., who is studying biomedical engineering.

While some suggest that students who don't end up at top universities may just not belong there, the data collected by Chapel Hill suggest that the students are very well prepared, and that while their academic performance lags slightly behind wealthier freshmen, almost all of the students keep up.

Full details are in the table below, but the SAT averages (above 1200) and high school grade-point averages (above 4.0) for Covenant Scholars indicate, Ort says, that "these students belong here."

The economic data from Chapel Hill show how top public universities -- even in states like North Carolina with strong populist traditions -- have become more and more places that serve wealthy families. Of Chapel Hill freshmen this year, 47 percent come from families with incomes over $100,000, and another 17 percent come from families with incomes greater than $75,000.

Steve Farmer, director of admissions at Chapel HIll, says that the program is already having an impact not only on those who are at the university, but on the ambitions of those who might never have attended. Admissions figures for those admitted this spring are still incomplete, but the data suggest that a change is going on.

For as long as he can remember, Farmer says, 4 percent of applicants have asked to have their application fees waived. The figure has been identical in good years and bad. This year, 4.5 percent of students requested waivers. That may seem small, he said, but that suggests a 10 percent increase in the applicant pool from the lowest income levels.

Other universities are also seeing significant increases in low-income applications because of new aid programs. Harvard University, which eliminated the family contribution for those with incomes under $40,000 and greatly reduced the contribution for those with incomes under $60,000, saw a 22 percent increase in the number of admitted applicants from such groups.

At North Carolina, Farmer said that he thinks the numbers will increase further as the university puts more effort into publicizing the program. He said that he has been stunned in his various speaking engagements with groups of high school counselors that as many as half haven’t heard of the Covenant Scholars. "I don’t think the message is widely distributed yet, so while we’re seeing real impact now, I think we're going to see much more dramatic increases over five years."

The numbers in the program are sure to increase next year because Chapel Hill is letting more students qualify. The current measure of 150 percent of poverty level sets the cutoff at about $18,000 for the child of a single parent or $28,000 for a family of four. Starting in the fall, students will qualify at up to 200 percent of the poverty level -- $24,000 for a single parent or $37,000 for a family of four.

The university is also expanding what it offers beyond money to the scholarship recipients. Chapel Hill just started a mentoring program in which faculty volunteers serve as mentors to Covenant Scholars. The mentors try to do "triage," so that they can identify any academic problems early and help steer the students in the right direction. 

Other activities are designed to help the Covenant Scholars with skills that they have identified as important to them. The university just set up its first "etiquette dinner" at which Carolina Scholars will have the chance to learn the rules associated with fancy dinners of the sort that they have never attended, but that may be part of their futures in getting good jobs or into graduate school. The dinner will feature not only instruction, but networking -- business and government leaders from the state, including top donors to the university, will attend and sit with the students.

McWilliams, the freshman, is one of those who signed up for the dinner. "I don’t know which fork and stuff to use," she says. "I want to feel comfortable in these situations."

Comparative Data on Chapel Hill's First Covenant Scholars

  All Freshmen Covenant Scholars
Parents' education    
  No college education   5% 21%
  At least a 4-year degree 86% 45%
Family income    
  $25,000 or less   6% 57%
  $25,001-$50,000 12% 41%
  $50,001-$75,000 18%   2%
  $75,001-$100,000 17%   0%
  $100,000 and up 47%   0%
  Male 42% 31%
  Female 58% 69%
  Asian   8% 16%
  Black 11% 34%
  Hispanic   4%   7%
  Native American   1%   1%
  White 73% 37%
  Other race/ethnicity   3%   5%
Academic statistics    
  SAT combined average 1275 1209
  High school GPA 4.29 4.22
  1st term college GPA under 2.0   6.4% 13.9%
  1st term GPA 2.0-2.49 11.0% 17.0%
  1st term GPA 2.5-3.0 25.6% 31.4%
  1st term GPA more than 3.0 57.0% 37.7%



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