Another First for the Covenant: Graduating Seniors

When Christie Trice spoke at a luncheon in 2004 as a freshman – where Bank of America’s charitable foundation announced a $900,000 gift to the Carolina Covenant – she explained that the Covenant was her future.

When she returned to the podium as a senior in March, at a gathering of Covenant students to announce an annual award to a senior in the program, Trice said, “The Covenant’s opened doors I didn’t anticipate.” She described the speech as “stuttering over words in hopes of saying something that will really leave a mark because I’m so thankful for the program.”

Trice told a story that’s been repeated often by the beneficiaries of Carolina’s breakthrough debt-free student financial aid program: families that couldn’t believe such a thing was possible; students who grabbed at a menu of extracurricular opportunities that grew throughout their four years.

The first Covenant Scholars are graduating in May – though the number getting their degrees is not yet known, 90.6 percent of the 223 who enrolled in 2004 still were hitting the books in fall 2007.

The Covenant offers students from families whose income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line a debt-free education by combining grants, scholarships and the federal work-study program. It has been emulated by some 40 other universities. By this fall, the program is expected to cover 10 percent of the undergraduate student body.

It is the brainchild of Associate Provost and Director of Scholarships and Student Aid Shirley A. Ort, who was the first in her family to go to college. Studies of the first class of Covenant Scholars are not complete, but Ort said that in the areas of mean cumulative grade point average, mean credit hours earned and end-of-term eligibility, this class has exceeded the measures of a group of low-income freshman from 2003.

The program was expanded steadily after the first year. Faculty and staff mentoring was beefed up with peer mentoring from continuing Covenant students. Seminars were set up for study habits and other academic support and career guidance. The University made sure the students were taking time for social events and gave them vouchers for arts programs.

Although the program operates on a principle of no loans, an exception was made to allow students to borrow anything they needed above the cost of a semester in Chapel Hill to participate in study abroad programs. Private donations came in earmarked for overseas study for Covenant students.

The University decided to establish a permanent endowment for the Covenant, for which it raised $10 million privately. The endowment will shore up the program against changing North Carolina demographics that are expected to create an even greater need for it.

Trice, whose mom is a single parent with two college-bound children, likely would not be completing her psychology and history double major without the Covenant. “My family contribution potential was not there,” she said. Since high school she’d wanted to go to Carolina, and her high school peers in Charlotte and a boyfriend who attended UNC got her excited about it. But the realities of paying for four years were a huge burden and stress factor. Then she got the Covenant letter.

“We thought we were reading it wrong, we were just ecstatic, we just hit the floor, there were tears,” she said. “With the Covenant, all the worries were erased, and that was just a miracle,” she added. “And after that, everything fell into place.”

The Covenant linked her with a job at SunTrust Bank, working as a community development assistant. It also gave her the opportunity to study abroad in Singapore, and she traveled to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Australia. The program was covered as an exchange, so Trice did not have to worry about the cost, and she was able to pay for her travel expenses because she had been working.

And finally – the icing on the cake – the Covenant gave her the courage to apply to law school, and to apply for loans. If she were knee-deep in loans after four years, she would not have jumped into a graduate program, she said. “I know I’m ready to start out on a clean slate and take out some of those loans, which is priceless,” she said. “The Covenant’s a phenomenal program.”

Related coverage is available online

  • Apply Yourself: Carolina extends its reach to students whose families can’t help much with the push toward college or the intricacies of the admissions process.
    From the March/April 2008 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review, available online to Carolina Alumni members.
  • An Unbinding Agreement: Where there’s a will inspired by a scholarships director’s own experience, there’s a way to open the University to more students by making money less of an issue. The Carolina Covenant is being watched nationwide.
    From the March/April 2006 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review, available online to Carolina Alumni members.

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