She was the youngest person in the room, and she brought down the house.
“At one point, I wasn't sure if college was going to happen for me because the money just wasn't there,” said Kelsey Rathbone, class of 2012, East Carolina University.
She had to pause mid-sentence and let tears pass. By the time she finished, we all had knots in our chests.
“I would like to thank you because the scholarship changed my life,” she said.
Kelsey is special. She made straight A's at Southern Wayne High School in Mount Olive, in Eastern North Carolina. She worked throughout high school (and still does) at a local pharmacy in her hometown. She likes small town life and is close to her mother, Carolyn Rathbone, who raised her, and her younger brother Will.
Yet Kelsey's story is not unusual. It is repeated in every region of the state, and at every college campus. Tens of thousands of worthy students in North Carolina would find a college education difficult, if not impossible, without public or private financial aid, even at the state's comparatively low-cost public universities.
Everyone who has benefitted from that generosity, public or private, please raise your hand.
I thought so. Lots of hands in the air, from Manteo to Murphy.
First, a disclosure: I sit on ECU's Board of Visitors, a non-policy board that's largely ceremonial. Its members are supposed to advise the chancellor and trustees and generally do about anything they are asked to support the university. I serve in a role that's carefully crafted not to create a conflict of interest – or even the appearance of one – with my job as an editorial writer and columnist for the Observer.
I do not raise money. I do not lobby politicians. I work on an outreach committee that develops a talent pool of ECU alums who might be able candidates for campus advisory boards and other appointments.
Yet it does give me a personal look at the issues the state's 200,000-student, $8 billion public university system grapples with.
I had lunch with Kelsey in early November, the same week the nation's voters made history by electing Barack Obama. Spending an hour with this young woman and hearing about her life and her dreams was a welcome reminder of what's really important – the perfect antidote to a season of election hubris.
It was also a reminder of what North Carolina has to lose if it does not keep college costs low at state universities and continue setting aside sufficient dollars for student aid.
A flood of need
How great is the need? Here's one small snapshot. The N.C. State Education Assistance Authority tracks the numbers of students and total state dollars spent on all aid programs. The totals for the 2007-2008 academic year include duplicates – many students receive more than one source of state grants – but the numbers are eye-opening.
N.C. Education Lottery Scholarship: 29,492 students and $35 million.
N.C. Community College Grant: 21,262 students and $11.6 million.
State Contractual Scholarship Fund (for students at private independent colleges) 16,137 and $42 million.
UNC need-based grant: 43,975 students and $95 million.
Still, deserving students fall through the cracks.
Kelsey entered my alma mater on a $5,000 a year Access Scholarship provided with private funds. It's a hybrid, based on both academic merit and financial need, and comes from money donated to the ECU Foundation.
In practical terms, that means recipients' families earn too much money to qualify for state or federal need-based aid but not enough to pay for college. As economic times worsen, putting more and more pressure on tax dollars, that kind of private money becomes even more important.
Kelsey wants to be a speech therapist and work in public schools. She is mature and focused, and I know she will be successful. This young woman – and her education – will be an asset to her state and community.
Meanwhile, the rest of us have work to do. It's our obligation to make sure our state and our universities are equipped to take care of the Kelseys in the world.