CHAPEL HILL – The UNC System’s strategic plan aims to get more rural, low-income, minority and first-generation students to earn a college degree or credential.

But one of the most powerful tools to drive student access and achieve those goals, need-based aid, has remained flat in the state budget since 2013-14, even as enrollment has increased and tuition has risen.

“One of the things we really need to work on – especially for families who haven’t necessarily seen college as needed or an option for their students – is to really power up on financial aid,” UNC System President Margaret Spellings says in the accompanying video.

“Affordability is clearly an issue – that’s why price is important.”

But even with three UNC System institutions offering in-state tuition of $500 a semester starting next fall under the new NC Promise program, Spellings says, “500 dollars is too much if you don’t have any savings.”

Financial aid doesn’t necessarily have to be a full scholarship, she says.

“What we’re learning now is – at places like ECU or UNC Charlotte [and] really, most of our institutions – micro-grants.1

“I mean, when a student’s car breaks down and they don’t have the money to pay for a repair, it gets them off track.  Small infusions of cash can really make a huge difference in keeping students on track to graduation,” she says.

The UNC Board of Governors is also studying new ways to pay for summer school,2   she says, “so that students can get in and out, and really use those summer months … to really enhance their trajectory and their education.”

Graduating on time with the help of summer school means lower costs and a more affordable degree.

The UNC System also needs to work with community colleges on the “seams” between institutions, Spellings says, to create affordable pathways for students.

It must also make financial aid more understandable to students and their families, she says, so they know what options are available to them long before college applications are due.

1 UNC Charlotte’s Gold Rush Grant Program offers one-time grants of $1,500 to selected students who are within two semesters of graduating and have demonstrated financial need:
2 In an effort to improve on-time graduation, UNC Asheville is piloting a program in which selected rising juniors and seniors can attend summer school for free. Of 23 students who were accepted into the program last summer, 19 are on track to graduate in May:

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