Carolina’s new director of Scholarships and Student Aid talks about maintaining the commitment to meeting 100 percent of need.
Four years ago, Carolina’s promise to meet the full documented need of students who qualify for financial aid was considered in jeopardy. Aid administrators were worried the UNC System Board of Governors would restrict the amount of revenues from tuition increases that could be used to insulate aid recipients from the burden of the increase.
The BOG backed off then, but a year and a half later, it placed a 15 percent cap on the amount of tuition revenue that can be applied to need-based student financial aid. Before the cap, UNC simply set aside whatever was needed from a tuition increase to hold aid recipients harmless.
UNC remains above the cap — at 19.8 percent — so the amount of tuition revenue it can spend on financial aid is frozen until future tuition increases push it below the cap.
But the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid has been resourceful, and it still can say that the University meets “100 percent of need” with grants and loans — 72 percent of it in grants and scholarships.
It’s a year-to-year situation, and the office will have to continue to find new sources of funds. Last year, Shirley Ort retired after almost two decades as the office’s director. Her successor, Rachelle Feldman, came to Chapel Hill from the same position at the University of California at Berkeley. The Review talked with Feldman about the state of need-based financial aid.
CAR: What are some highlights of your 16 years at Cal-Berkeley that help inform your role at UNC?
Feldman: It’s interesting because the universities have a lot of things in common. They’re both the flagship schools, so they’re both highly competitive, but they’re both really committed to the public mission of the states that they’re in. And the states, believe it or not, actually have a lot of things in common from a financial aid viewpoint — like the high degree of income and inequality and the changing demographics.
At Berkeley, we faced many of the same issues. We had a high number of very needy students, competitive admissions, declining state support — much more declining than here — so a lot of our struggle was with funding and making sure that we maintained a commitment to funding all the students who were eligible to come, at least from the state, and that’s a difference from here. [Out-of-state students, who make up about 25 percent of Berkeley’s student body, are not eligible for institutional need-based aid in California.]
Carolina, on the other hand, I really admire the commitment that if we say we want you here, you’re eligible to get in. We are committed to meeting your full need. Now, we do it with a more generous package for people from North Carolina, as is appropriate because we are committed to the mission of the state, but we do meet the full need of all students in-state or out.
CAR: What kinds of innovative things did you do at Berkeley?
Feldman: One of the things we noticed there — and we’re doing some research to see if it’s true here as well — [was] we were doing a really good job for very low-income people. And then for people at the top end of the income spectrum it was still very affordable, the tuition wasn’t that high compared to a private school. But there was a group of people in the middle that, just the cost factor, particularly in the Bay Area, was very high for housing and things and they were getting very squeezed. And we found that students’ borrowing was a little higher, they tended to work too many hours, we thought, for academic success, so we created a program for middle-income families that sort of capped what their contribution would be at a percent of their income.
I think that’s something worth looking at here at Carolina. It’s not as stark because the cost of living here isn’t as high, but it’s worth taking a look just to make sure we’re still serving the full spectrum of people, and we’re doing some research this year to really take a look at that.
Our biggest question in the future is, now that there is a cap on how much tuition revenue can go to need-based aid, how do we make sure all these programs we have are sustainable for the very long run, and we don’t have to back away from our commitment. We’re not in a position now where we have to back away from our commitment. But it’s going to take a partnership with our alumni and our other interested [philanthropic] parties to make sure for the next 100, 200 years we continue to be a true public institution.
This is where it came from:
Campus Funds $83.0 million
Loans 30.0 million
Federal 17.8 million
State 12.1 million
External Grants/Scholarships 7.2 million
Work/Study 3.3 million
CAR: Four years ago, your predecessor was worried about the University’s ability to maintain its commitment to meeting 100 percent of need. Is it still being met?
Feldman: Yes. The idea behind 100 percent of need is that we’re completely need-blind in admissions. It has nothing to do with who we’re admitting or shaping the class in that sense. But once you’re admitted to Carolina, we are committed to making sure every student admitted can afford to be here, so you’re not making your choice about whether to come here or not based on — we hope — the fact that you can’t afford it. That means that every dollar of need that we calculate … will be matched with either grants, scholarships, work/study or subsidized loans. One of the federal subsidized loan programs [the Perkins Loan Program] wound its way down and is in the process of ending. We actually created our own institutional subsidized loan program to make up for that loss.
CAR: How big a hit was that?
Feldman: That was several million dollars’ worth of loans. In the $3 million range. But we replaced that with the University committed to lending that money directly to students, with similar terms. [It is] subsidized, meaning no interest accrues until the loan goes into repayment after graduation. Unlike other loans, it isn’t getting bigger as they go to school.
We are allowed to request a loan from the chancellor of up to $5 million a year. That money will come back because the students pay the loans back. So far we haven’t needed anywhere near that — we’re more in the $3 million range. [After five years, it becomes a revolving fund] and then eventually either another source of funding or something will be identified, and we can pay the whole thing back.
CAR: How do you feel now about UNC’s ability to continue to meet that commitment?
Feldman: It’s not immediately threatened because of the deep commitment and value from the highest level of administration on the campus to find the funding for it. I would say that, long term, the only way we’ll be able to sustain it is with private dollars — scholarship donations to the University, not a corporation or something.
We are gearing up to do a campaign to ask for that money. We need every penny we can get to really make it sustainable in the long run. But in the short to medium term, I think the campus commitment is there, and it’s incredible. I don’t think we’re going to turn the spigot off tomorrow, but I do think there’s just no mathematical way to make it work without more philanthropy and other sources of funding coming to the campus.
CAR: What role is this office playing in the upcoming capital campaign?
Feldman: We’re trying to work with [the Office of University Development] to tell them our story about why there’s need for scholarships of all kinds — merit, need, support for student work experience, support for summer internships. We’re trying to create a menu, if you will, to talk to them about why the need is there and how much. We created an ambassador program, so we have scholarship students who are willing to share their stories with either donors or with the development folks. We are trying to be the best stewards of the money we can.
CAR: How’s the health of the Carolina Covenant?
Feldman: I’d say the Covenant is doing well. Obviously, the Covenant is a program I was familiar with before I came here. The number of students who qualify for the Covenant has grown substantially, which means we’ve had to look at and target our support programming to make sure we can accommodate that. The Covenant really has focused on dependent students, the students who come directly from high school or transfer students who are still young enough to be dependent on their parents. One of the things we’re looking [at is] what are the needs of independent or nontraditional students that might fall into those same income areas — veterans or students who have children and families of their own who are returning to school. We think we’ve identified some needs there, and we’re more interested in expanding some of the Covenant programming and services to those students.
Something we’re working on that you may see in the near future, and that we think is important for the state, is that really bright students who come back after other life experiences are treated as special and get as much support from us as more traditional students.
44% of Carolina undergraduates qualify for need-based aid
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The Carolina Covenant enables students from families whose income is 200% or less of federal poverty guidelines to graduate debt-free through a combination of grants and scholarships and work/study
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13% of the entering class in fall 2016 were covered by the Covenant
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More than 49% of the student body receives need-based or merit aid
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40.7% of Carolina’s class of 2015 graduated with debt that averaged
$20,127; the national averages were 68% and $30,100
CAR: What worries you the most about the financial aid situation today?
Feldman: I worry the most that our rhetoric fails to see the benefit for society of educating a broad swath of smart people. Making sure they become good, educated citizens, to help the economy of the state. [I am worried] that we see it as this narrow self-interested thing instead, and that we start this rhetoric about “capable of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” And I feel like people my age tell stories about how they worked and put themselves through school and why can’t kids do it today, without any context of the state subsidies that were in place when we did that and the difference in pricing and public support.
I went to a public college and, yeah, I didn’t have to take out a loan. I could work my way through school — it didn’t cost anywhere near what it costs today. The state paid for much more of it. I worry that we have a little bit of sort of anti-intellectualism combined with not seeing why it’s so important to all of us that anyone who has the potential to graduate from a great university is able to do so. And I worry [about] what that means for public policy and federal funding and state funding.
Back then, working minimum wage, you could pretty much put yourself through college if you worked all summer, and now that’s just mathematically impossible.
CAR: What message do you have for the government entities about the importance of financial aid at UNC?
Feldman: Providing a quality education to students is not free. You have to pay faculty, you have to have infrastructure, you have to maintain buildings, you have to buy the technology that students need, you have to have decent laboratories so they’re really getting the real-work experience they need. Which means somebody needs to pay. So, if the choice is that the taxpayers pay for it, you can lower the tuition. But if the choice is that this is where our taxes are, which is a valid position, and we need to raise tuition, then to ensure that we move our state economy forward — that we get people out of poverty, that we move our tax base up — I think there are statistics that show that for every dollar you spend on education, two go into the tax base per graduate.
We need to make sure sufficient resources are there not to just get people through our doors but to graduate them. That means they need to be able to eat, and they need a place to sleep, and they have to be able to buy textbooks, and they have to not be distracted from going to school. A reasonable amount of work is good, but worrying constantly about whether or not I’m going to get a meal tomorrow — no one does their best work in that situation.
We have to not think we can solve our fiscal problems by austerity. It didn’t work for Greece, it’s not going to work for us. We have to find innovative other ways to ensure that we’re still fulfilling that mission. But I think the passion is there.
CAR: Is there anything you did at Berkeley that you want to start here?
Feldman: One thing I would like to see us work on over time — it’s not a deficiency, I just think it would be helpful — is a more formalized program around financial literacy for our students: handling credit and debt and budgeting and things like that. These are skills that students, whether they have financial need or not, need to master and that aren’t covered as much in, say, high school civics classes as they used to be. One way that I think is really successful that’s been modeled other places is to coordinate it with our staff [to] develop a group of peer mentors with other students so that it’s students teaching students. Not a course, but I think that if we could integrate it into orientations, offer workshops where students are, maybe go into the dorms, talk to them before they graduate — Did I borrow? What does that mean? I think there’s lots of opportunities to make small, impactful touches.
— David E. Brown ’75