The Carolina Covenant program has helped almost 1,800 academically prepared students from low-income homes pay for college since its inception in 2004.
Now five years later, and in a more pressing economic time, there are hard numbers to back up the premise that the program does, in fact, help students succeed.
A study compared the success of a cohort of Covenant scholars in 2004 with a group of students from the 2003 entering class who would have been eligible for the program.
For example, the number of 2004 Covenant scholars who took at least one semester off but came back was about 20 percent lower than the 2003 control group. Taking a semester off, or “stopping out,” is considered a risk factor for graduation.
In addition, the number of 2004 scholars who stopped enrolling at some point and haven’t come back in the first three years was about 24 percent lower than the 2003 group.
Also, the number of scholars from the 2004 group who became academically ineligible was 17 percent lower than the group of students from 2003.
Shirley Ort, the director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, said these numbers are really due to how much the campus as a whole looks out for these scholars.
“I think [the success] is largely due to the fact that we’re watching them very closely,” she said. “We provided a lot of programming where we can provide support service to them and also listen to them and learn about who needs some special kind of help.” These programs include everything from financial literacy classes to providing tickets to performing arts events.
Ort said the support network was a major reason the average GPA for Covenant scholars at graduation is within two tenths of a point of the average for all students.
To be eligible to be a current Covenant scholar, the family’s annual income may not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty standard, and the family also must qualify for federal student financial aid. The program is based on work-study that enables students to graduate debt-free.
Ort said the question for her office no longer is whether the Carolina Covenant works; the question is whether it will continue to grow in the present economic climate when more families will likely qualify for aid.
The Covenant program is now working with the Education Access Reward North Carolina (EARN) program, which works in combination with the federal Pell Grant program that benefits college students for their first two years by replacing the need for student loans if the students keep their grades up.
“We do anticipate that there will be modest growth in the number of students who qualify,” Ort said. “There’s no quota, so if there are more eligible, we will give them the same level of service.”
The Covenant became a model for other schools in the nation soon after its inception.
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