A signature initiative of the just-launched Campaign for Carolina is both unusually ambitious and particularly appropriate, addressing a defining priority of this institution dating to Hinton James’ arrival on Feb. 12, 1795. That initiative, the Carolina Edge, addresses access and affordability to higher education, two essential characteristics of our university — and ones for which each of Carolina’s more than 322,000 living alumni should seek to preserve.
We can trace this commitment to access and affordability across centuries, to the establishment in 1879 of the Deems Fund, which during the worldwide Long Depression made loans to nearly 2,000 students; to the depths of the Great Depression, in 1932, the creation of an Emergency Student Loan Fund, without which, as the Alumni Review reported at the time, more than 500 “worthwhile students … will be forced out of school back upon bankrupt homes and jobless towns.” And to 2004, with the launch of the nationally recognized Carolina Covenant, which has provided a debt-free education to more than 7,500 qualified low-income students.
Last fall, 20 percent of entering students were first-generation college students, and 14 percent were Covenant Scholars. Those scholars are selected after earning admission to Carolina and after their financial need is confirmed. The Covenant is more than a no-loan package of grants and scholarships to accompany work-study. Scholars have access to faculty and staff mentors, special workshops, social events and a dedicated staff at the Student Aid Office to help scholars make the most of their UNC experience. As Chancellor Carol L. Folt often notes, “While others may be turning away from this public mission, we are turning toward it.” In announcing the $1 billion Carolina Edge Scholarship Initiative in October, the chancellor spoke succinctly about the vision behind the effort: “To eliminate all financial barriers to education.”
We often think of that concept as being synonymous with the Carolina Covenant, but for every Covenant Scholar, there are two middle-income students at Carolina receiving need-based aid. And despite recent tuition increases, the 41 percent of undergraduate students who borrow to attend UNC leave the University with an average of $20,100 in cumulative undergraduate debt — $8,000 below the national average of $28,100.
It has long been acknowledged that public education is the only effective means for individuals to be lifted out of poverty; in the late 18th century, the very idea of The University of North Carolina — providing higher education for the “common man” rather than just the elite — was unprecedented. And today, college graduates earn more money, pay more taxes and rely less on government assistance.
But it also is true that many states have significantly cut their financial commitments to public higher education. Last year, states spent $5.7 billion less on public higher education than in the financial-crisis year of 2008 (when adjusted for inflation) although they are educating 800,000 more students. Also since 2008, Carolina has absorbed recurring cuts in state appropriations that now exceed $186 million annually. At the nation’s top public universities, since the 1990s there has been a sharp rise in wealthy students and a sharp decrease in low-income students. And in North Carolina, the UNC System’s Board of Governors acted in 2014 to limit to 15 percent the amount of tuition revenue that can be directed to financial aid.
The Carolina Edge is the latest example of UNC’s legacy commitment to college access and affordability, ensuring that Carolina can continue to recruit the very best students. To do this, the University aims to raise $1 billion for undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships in areas such as the Carolina Covenant, middle-income scholarships, merit scholars, summer internship grants, Chancellor’s Science Scholars, athletics and graduate and professional school financial aid.
For Carolina to retain its edge in the fierce competition for the brightest students and to remain accessible and affordable for all students who earn admission to UNC, all Carolina alumni should do what we can to support the Carolina Edge Scholarship Initiative. The $1 billion goal is audacious, but our history is illuminated with the vision and deeds of Hinton James and all of us fortunate enough to have followed him and carry on the responsibility to ensure that for students who earn their way here and work hard, Carolina will make certain they have the resources to graduate.
Yours at Carolina,
Douglas S. Dibbert ’70