As committed as he was to the idea of going to college, Isai Garcia-Baza realized that it “was not necessarily going to be easy” to afford to go to UNC-Chapel Hill. But he’s glad the university has enough of a support structure in place for low-income students that it wound up being possible.
After starting at Alamance Community College, Garcia-Baza was able to transfer to UNC-CH via the university’s C-STEP program and was offered a Carolina Covenant financial-aid package. In May, he graduated after double-majoring in psychology and religious studies.
The path through college “means a complete change of life, a different lifestyle, a different future” from the poverty and old ways his family sought to leave behind by leaving Mexico, he said.
And to honor UNC-CH for the work it has done in helping low-income students enroll and succeed in college, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation honored the university on Monday with a $1 million prize that campus officials say they’ll match with another $1 million in private fundraising.
Ultimately, they’ll use the $2 million to reinforce the university’s outreach to high schools in rural and low-income parts of North Carolina, and to make sure more low-income students can participate in internships, study-abroad programs and summer classes they couldn’t otherwise afford, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions Steve Farmer said.
“We want no less for these students than we want for any of our students, no less than we want for our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and for that matter for ourselves,” Farmer said. “We want these students to leave Chapel Hill knowing that they’re loved and respected for being the unique people they are. We want them to leave here having done all that they came here to do.”
The foundation’s director, former New York City schools Chancellor Harold Levy, said UNC-CH is “doing an outstanding job of admitting and graduating high-achieving low-income students” and, like the previous winners, is a role model in opening the door “wider to students of academic merit regardless of family income.”
UNC-CH and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation – named for a Canadian and U.S. media magnate who also owned several professional sports teams – aren’t strangers to each other. Money from the foundation helped pay for the 2006 launch of C-STEP, short for Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program.
It targets high school seniors from households with incomes at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line, and promises them a slot at UNC-CH if they get a community college degree and pull down a 3.2 grade-point average along the way. At launch, the university worked with three community colleges and six students, Chancellor Carol Folt said. That’s grown to now include 10 community colleges and more than 750 students.
It’s one “of a very ambitious set of programs that are part of our portfolio” to reach low-income families, along with the Carolina Covenant aid program and an “advising corps” of recent alumni who work at high schools across the state to encourage students to give college a try, Folt said.
Dating as they do from the early and mid-2000s, the Carolina Covenant and C-STEP are trying to counter trends that in those days had left UNC-CH as much of a proverbial “rich person’s school” as nearby Duke University, which since has mounted its own effort to widen the availability of need-based student aid.
Statistical work from a team led by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty looking at students born between 1980 and 1982 indicates that by the time they were hitting college in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Duke and UNC-CH were drawing only about 3.2 and 3.5 percent of their students from the bottom fifth of the country’s income distribution.