UNC’s new scholarship program aims to help NC’s middle class families afford college

A tour group of parents, future students and family members learn the history of UNC’s Old Well on the Chapel Hill campus.
A tour group of parents, future students and family members learn the history of UNC’s Old Well on the Chapel Hill campus. News & Observer file photo

UNC-Chapel Hill will announce a new $20 million scholarship fund that will help cover costs for middle income undergraduates from North Carolina.

With a $5 million gift from former UNC President Erskine Bowles, UNC has launched the Blue Sky Scholars program. UNC will announce the program on Friday on the university’s 225th birthday.

The university will raise the remaining $15 million to fully fund the program.

The awards won’t be full scholarships, but will go a long way toward covering the cost of a UNC education for students from families who don’t qualify for UNC’s Carolina Covenant program, which provides a debt-free degree for low-income students. The new scholarship will include $7,500 a year, plus $2,500 in annual work-study and a one-time grant of $2,500 for study abroad, internships or other enrichment opportunities. Blue Sky scholars will also receive support in the way of academic and career counseling.

“We are really excited about this,” Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said in an interview. “This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate to middle income North Carolinians and their family members that not only is the university affordable to them but that the university is on their side.”

Students from families with a household income averaging $75,000 a year could qualify for the scholarships. Such students typically already receive need-based financial aid from the university, but still rely on loans to make it through school.

Some students admitted to UNC don’t end up enrolling, Farmer said, even if they can afford it, because they’re worried about being a burden to their families.

“What we’re trying to do with Blue Sky is to give these students the freedom to choose the school they really want to attend, rather than them go to a place they feel they have to attend.”

Farmer said under the new scholarship program, recipients are expected to finish UNC with roughly $10,000 in debt — far below the national average and well below the average $22,000 in debt of a member of last year’s graduating class.

Bowles is a UNC graduate and Charlotte businessman who twice ran for the U.S. Senate from North Carolina. He was the former administrator of the Small Business Administration and former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. He was president of the UNC system from 2005 to 2010.

In a news release, Bowles said: “We want to recruit more of these promising, middle-income students and set them up to succeed while at Carolina and well beyond graduation. Not only are we helping prepare tomorrow’s leaders, we’ll help them hit the ground running in a modern workforce and without burdensome college debt.”

UNC has been a leader in financial aid programs for low-income students. The university created the Carolina Covenant in 2003, a scholarship that provides grants on top of federal financial aid to allow lower income students to earn a degree without debt. In this year’s freshman class, 14 percent of students qualified for the scholarship.

Now, the university is extending its financial aid dollars to the middle class. Thanks to Bowles, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said in a statement, “we will make the promise of a Carolina education possible for even more students and their families, regardless of their ability to pay.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559; @janestancill
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