The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will receive a $1 million prize for its efforts to make higher education accessible and affordable for low-income students.
The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, based in Loudoun County, Va., selected UNC for the prize as a “national leader and role model for providing equal educational opportunity to students based on academic merit, regardless of family income,” the foundation’s executive director, Harold O. Levy, said in a statement Monday.
The Cooke prize for equity in educational excellence was created to reward colleges with programs benefiting low-income students. According to a study by the Cooke Foundation, only 3 percent of students from the bottom income quartile attend top U.S. universities. At the same colleges, 72 percent of the enrollment are students from the top 25 percent income bracket.
The foundation, named for the late owner of the Washington Redskins, chose UNC for its expansive efforts on behalf of poor students. A total of 22 percent of students at the public flagship are eligible for Pell grants, an indicator of income status, but the university provides needs-based financial aid to 44 percent of undergraduates.
“The reason for the establishment of state universities was to give, in the words of someone else, ‘uncommon education to the common man,’ ” Levy said in an interview. “These are institutions that should be focused on low-income kids and moving them up the food chain. Too few of our colleges do that. . . . The colleges that still focus on high-performing low-income kids from their state are exceptionally important. And UNC Chapel Hill is really in front of that game.”
UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt said the university’s efforts to help low-income students begins in middle school, long before they enroll at Chapel Hill. The university’s recruitment and outreach include tours of the campus for low-income middle and high school students from around the state. Its Carolina College Advising Corps reaches 23 percent of low-income public high school students in the state.
“The approach that we take is so comprehensive and so deep,” Folt said. “It starts with kids in middle school, reaching out that no matter what their background is they truly can go here.”
Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said the university is dedicated to a holistic application process to ensure socioeconomic diversity.
“We have worked really, really hard just in admissions to really consider students individually on the basis of the whole of their circumstances rather than just to let us be distracted by one or two flashy numbers,” Farmer said. “We know that people are really more than their test scores.”
Farmer said that in recent years the admissions department decided against placing significant emphasis on the number of Advanced Placement courses on a student’s transcript as one way to level the playing field.
Instead, Farmer said, the admissions officers are looking at applications to identify indicators of grit, resiliency and determination.
“Has the student overcome obstacles? Has the student taken care of responsibilities outside of the classroom?” Farmer said. “We think that there are a lot of ways for students to demonstrate their capacity to work hard here.”
Farmer said that for admitted students, the school’s Carolina Covenant program provides debt-free financial aid to qualifying students to ensure that an education is attainable regardless of income. Since the Carolina Covenant program began in 2004, the four-year graduation rate for African American men rose from 33 percent to 61.8 percent for the class of 2015.
For Folt, making college affordable and accessible for disadvantaged students is a personal mission. Her grandparents were Albanian immigrants, and her mother was the first in the family to be born in the United States. Folt worked her way through college at the University of California at Santa Barbara as a waitress at the Big Belly Deli on her way to earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology before later receiving her doctorate from the University of California at Davis.
“We were raised like many first-generation families to just believe that you worked hard and you went and you made it to college and that college would open up opportunities,” Folt said. “I just believe in the power of higher education to make your life have unlimited opportunity.”