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Amid troubles, here’s one area where UNC is scoring big

By Michael S. Harris
Special to the Observer

Not long after his return to his alma mater, basketball coach Roy Williams starred in a television commercial for UNC’s Carolina Covenant. He summed up the premise of the program’s offer of a debt-free education saying, “Everyone deserves a shot.”

It has been a tough few months in Blue Heaven. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has faced significant and warranted criticism for no-show classes, the academic ability of athletes, and players receiving impermissible benefits from sports agents.

The struggles continued on the court where UNC basketball suffered several upset losses and began ACC play with a 1-4 start following a loss at the University of Virginia.

While the Tar Heels lost the game against Virginia, UNC supporters have a reason to celebrate a far more significant win that happened outside the lines.

Both UVA and UNC started need-based financial aid programs to encourage low-income students to apply and attend. UVA and UNC are both top public institutions and found that students with the academic ability to succeed were not attending.

Each university’s program – Access UVA and the Carolina Covenant – proved to be an enormous success. Access UVA increased the number of low-income students in Charlottesville from 702 in 2004 to more than 2,500 in 2012. The Carolina Covenant brings approximately 2,200 students to Chapel Hill.

Unfortunately, this is where the similarities end. UVA has changed its program so that instead of graduating debt-free, low-income students borrow up to $28,000. UNC has maintained its intention to continue the Carolina Covenant’s promise of providing an undergraduate degree without student loans.

In an environment of tight finances, these programs are expensive, each costing about $40-$50 million. UNC should be commended for making the hard choices to ensure a Carolina education remains financially accessible for all North Carolinians.

The N.C. Constitution mandates the affordability of higher education. Former UNC President Bill Friday dedicated his life to keeping UNC accessible to all. UNC’s success in this regard is a national example.

Since Kiplinger’s started ranking the value of colleges, taking into account academics, cost, and financial aid, UNC has been number one every year. The culture of UNC values the public nature of the institution and supports the idea that all high-achieving students should be able to attend regardless of family income.

The university should be rewarded for the decision to maintain the Covenant in spite of numerous challenges. The state legislature has been cutting the university’s funding. The costs of nearly every aspect of university operations – from salaries and benefits to energy expenses – continue to grow. Yet, the Carolina Covenant remains.

To be sure, we need far more low-income students in college than either of these programs are providing. Higher education is the key for social and economic success in today’s world. No student who has the academic ability should be locked out simply because of income.

However, the Carolina Covenant provides an important voice in the sea of messages students hear about the escalating cost of college. Despite the fights about public education and numerous athletics scandals, let’s acknowledge the important role that the first public university in the nation is playing in preserving financially accessible higher education. Athletic victories are nice. Getting low-income students into college – that’s a real win.

Michael S. Harris is associate professor of higher education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He is a graduate of UNC and a native of Shelby.

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