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Lessons from Carolina Covenant

Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
June 15, 2018

As we approach the 15th anniversary of the first Carolina Covenant students arriving on campus, we are also reflecting on our successes and places for growth. We know based on the research of Clotfelter, Hemelt and Ladd (2017), that our work has been successful due to not only the financial element, but also the academic support we provide. What we are beginning to delve into is how can we be sure those academic interventions are evidence based and targeted. Furthermore, I am working to create a community and culture that says it is not only okay to come from a low-income family, but that you can use the resilience you have learned over the course of your life to succeed at a selective institution like Carolina.

The first state university in the nation, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also became the first public institution to create a financial aid package that guarantees that low-income students will graduate debt free. Many other institutions have duplicated UNC’s effort, but not all have been able to maintain the “covenant” aspect of the relationship and continue supporting their students financially. The Carolina Covenant has had its challenges, including the untimely passing of its first director, but has been successful in maintaining its debt free promise to students through maintaining executive level support, faculty and staff mentoring, and more recently obtaining greater student input into its programming.

The Covenant began with the incoming first year students in 2004, and was gradually phased in over a four-year period. This phasing allowed the institution to continue to develop funding from various sources. It also allowed the program to grow slowly so that the appropriate staff could be put into place. The guideline that students must have family incomes at 150% of the federal poverty level was put in place initially, but raised in the 2005-2006 academic year to 200% of the federal poverty guideline where it remains today. Nearly 2500 students, or 14% of the UNC student body, is a Covenant student.

The Carolina Covenant (Covenant) would not have thrived if it were not for executive level support. Since its inception the Covenant has support of the university’s chancellors. Chancellors Moeser, Thorp, and Folt, respectively, have continued to prioritize supporting Covenant during their time as head of the university. This means that the program has a dedicated development officer, and that the program is a feature of the current capital campaign. This support means that the campus community, alumni, and those who simply love Carolina understand that Covenant is a priority, and thus, often give fervently to the cause. In conversations with others who manage similar programs, a lack of executive support seems to be the reason the institution is not able to raise the funds necessary to keep the program functioning. To maintain this support we are in communication with the chancellor via our Assistant Provost and Director of Financial Aid, and send the Chancellor an update on the program at least once per year.

Carolina Covenant has a rather high first-year to second year retention rate (90%). At present, I am studying why this is so, but anecdotally, we believe it is attributed to both our financial aid packaging and our mentoring programs. First-year students are automatically placed with either a faculty or staff mentor, and may opt into a peer-mentoring program. The peer mentoring program offers them the option to select to become a part of the Minority Mentoring Program, Transfer Student Mentoring Program, or the Carolina Covenant Mentoring Program. Students may select which mentor program they would like to opt into based on what identity suits them best. Faculty/staff mentors are assigned by geography so that students have a group that feels familiar to them when they enter the university. Students do not always enthusiastically connect with their mentors in the first-year, but we do hear from both peers and faculty/staff that students seek them out in their second year once they realize that Carolina is bigger than they may have understood before. What makes our program unique is that faculty and staff are paid a stipend to participate and funds to use to take students on outings. Peer mentors are provided a stipend to take their mentees out also.

As Covenant moves forward it is my aim to continue crafting a community among the students, but also across campus, that discusses what it means to be low-income on a selective campus like UNC. These discussions about social class are often not a part of initiatives that support diversity and inclusion in the field of higher education. However, my colleagues here have been eager to support this effort and ensure that we are considering the experiences and needs of one of our most vulnerable populations.

We know that the Carolina Covenant has inspired other institutions to create similar programs, and now we simply want to continue to assess what we have done and be sure we are still doing good work. I hope you’ll join us by assessing your own campus and think about how class equity can be approached and achieved.


Clotfelter, C.T., Hemelt, S.W. & Ladd, H.F. (2017). “Multifaceted aid for low-income students and college outcomes: Evidence from North Carolina.” NBER Working Paper Series. Retrieved from: http://www.nber.org/papers/w22217

Shonda L. Goward, Ed.D. is the Academic Director for Carolina Covenant and Achieve Carolina at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has over a decade of experience in higher education administration, and is also a former lecturer in undergraduate research writing. Her current research focuses on low-income student success and well-being.  Dr. Goward received her Ed.D. from The George Washington University, M.A. from Southern Connecticut State University, and B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.