CHAPEL HILL – In June, a foundation established by the late owner of the Washington Redskins awarded the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill $1 million for its efforts to enroll low-income students and support them through graduation.
Carolina beat out Brown, Rice, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley to win the 2017 Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence.1
“The reason for the establishment of state universities was to give, in the words of someone else, ‘uncommon education to the common man,’” Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, told The Washington Post as he announced the award.
“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.”2
A study last year by the Cooke Foundation found that only 3 percent of students at top U.S. universities come from the bottom income quartile, while 72 percent of students are from the top 25% income bracket.
The dramatic disparity shows why schools need to enroll more high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students, Levy said. A recent Cooke Foundation study calls on states to increase funds for public flagships to give moderate- and low-income students equal access to public universities in their home states.
The Cooke Foundation noted that 22% of UNC Chapel Hill’s 18,500 undergraduates are eligible for federal Pell Grants that go to low-income students, and the university still ranks among America’s top public universities and research universities.
The Foundation highlighted how UNC Chapel Hill admits students on a need-blind basis, 44% of its students receive need-based aid, and its Carolina Covenant provides debt-free financial aid for students from the poorest households.
It also pointed to outreach efforts like First Look, which introduces low-income middle-school students to college, and the Carolina College Advising Corps, which places 51 recent Chapel Hill grads in low-income high schools as advisors to help students identify and apply to colleges.
“As the nation’s first public university, access and opportunity are in our DNA,” said Chancellor Carol Folt.
“We know that when our student body reflects the most talented individuals, from all backgrounds, we are a stronger University and our state and nation become stronger as well. Carolina’s approach from recruiting to preparing these future leaders is comprehensive and deep.”3
Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said that over the past 15 years, the University has pieced together a variety of efforts to reach low-income, rural and first-generation students.
“Through chancellors and boards of trustees, the University has remained focused,” Farmer said. “There are other things the university could spend the money on – that’s why the University’s long-term commitment is so important.”
In 2014-15 alone, UNC Chapel Hill supplied its students with $209 million in financial aid – $151 million of it in grants and scholarships.4
The University intends to raise $500 million more for student aid, $150 million of it to
endow the Carolina Covenant, which guarantees that qualifying students graduate with no debt.5 An anonymous donor has already pledged $10 million for the Covenant.
Carolina will raise $1 million to match the Cooke dollars, Farmer said, and use the funds both to expand existing efforts and offer new ones such as dedicated academic support for students who enroll through the College Advising Corps.
It takes more than money, though.
“The money’s vital,” Farmer said. “But beyond the money, knowing that there’s someone you can talk to, someone who’s there to welcome you, someone who understands you, who won’t think less of you if you don’t have all the answers already – those kinds of relationships are important.”
When the University admits the most qualified students regardless of their financial circumstances, he said, “It’s not just those students who benefit … it’s all of their classmates.”
UNC Chapel Hill is the first state university to receive the Cooke Prize; it went to Vassar in 2015 and Amherst in 2016.
“It’s heartening that the foundation chose to recognize a public university,” Farmer said, “because the public universities educate the lion’s share of the students in the country.”
4University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Proposal to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for the Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence, p. 4.
5Ibid, p. 8.