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Guaranteed college scholarship program launches in N.C.: Affordability efforts come at a critical time for higher education

Southwestern Community College completed a new health sciences building in 2021 to expand enrollment and diversify opportunities in its popular health sciences programs. File photo Southwestern Community College completed a new health sciences building in 2021 to expand enrollment and diversify opportunities in its popular health sciences programs. File photo

Starting in the fall, North Carolina students whose families make less than $80,000 a year will receive a guaranteed scholarship toward attending any of the state’s public colleges and universities. 

“As soon as we can get the aid offers out to students, they’re going to see exactly how affordable and accessible a quality four-year education can be to them,” said Trina Orr, director of Western Carolina University’s Office of Financial Aid. 

The program, called Next N.C. Scholarship, is a revamped version of a similar program that launched last year, which was simply called N.C. Scholarship. That program was open to families with an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less, so even more students will be eligible under the new program.

The award is made by combining federal Pell Grant funds with state scholarship funds, and it’s automatically applied when students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. Every student is guaranteed at least $5,000 to attend one of North Carolina’s 16 public universities, and at least $3,000 to attend one of its 58 community colleges. State scholarship funds make up the difference between that guarantee and any Pell Grant a student may receive, and some students might get more than the baseline guarantee. The maximum Pell Grant is $7,395, and a student receiving that amount to attend a UNC school would also receive some state scholarship money, Orr said, about $1,000.

The money can be used toward tuition, fees and books, but also for living expenses like food and housing. It does not have to be paid back.

Stacking scholarships

Significant numbers of students at WCU, as well as Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College, have already been taking advantage of the program in its initial form. At WCU, 2,995 students — 35.8% of the 8,368 in-state, undergraduate students who were eligible to apply — received an N.C. Scholarship for the 2023-2024 school year. SCC has 145 students currently using the scholarship and HCC has 56.

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SCC Dean of Students Mark Ellison said that, at SCC, an estimated 10% more students would qualify under the Next N.C. Scholarship. Certainly, a high proportion of local families would fit under the $80,000 threshold. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, the median household income is $56,596 in Haywood County, $52,818 in Swain County, $51,482 in Jackson County and $51,042 in Macon County.

The scholarship’s launch comes amid ongoing efforts to improve college affordability in North Carolina. In the N.C. Community College System, in-state tuition has remained flat since 2015, and the University of North Carolina System is in its seventh straight year of flat tuition. In 2018, WCU became one of three — now four — universities in the state to offer the N.C. Promise Tuition Program, which caps the sticker price of undergraduate tuition at $500 for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students. In 2023, the university launched a scholarship guarantee program called Catamount Commitment that promises incoming students an annual scholarship of $1,000-$3,000, awarded on a sliding scale that’s based on their high school GPA.

“Stacking all of that together can make a really good financial aid package offer for a student,” Orr said.

In 2023, the expected cost of attendance for an in-state, full-time undergraduate student was $19,849, an amount that includes not only $4,532 for tuition and fees but also $7,000 for housing and line items for food, loan fees, books and supplies, travel and personal expenses. An incoming student with a family income under $80,000 and a high school GPA of 4.0 or higher would receive an automatic $8,000 per year in grants and scholarships from Next N.C. and Catamount Commitment, more than covering the cost of tuition and fees and knocking the total expected cost of attendance down to just under $12,000 per year.

The Next N.C. Scholarship would also more than cover the cost of tuition and fees for a full-time student at either HCC or SCC, whose current rates are $2,579 and $2,720, respectively. Like WCU, their total expected cost of attendance is much higher, factoring in living expenses like housing, food, transportation and miscellaneous expenditures along with academic purchases such as books and class supplies to come up with a total of $17,165 at HCC and $18,194 at SCC for students who live with their parents.

Both schools have other programs to help defray that total cost. Half of SCC’s students have received some kind of financial aid, with the SCC Foundation distributing $259,000 to 224 students last year. The HCC Foundation is currently working to create a new scholarship for high-demand, high skill-level and high-pay programs, set to be finalized in mid-February. Both schools offer an emergency fund  to help students facing an unexpected financial barrier while taking classes, as well as options for high school students to enroll in degree and certification programs at little or no cost to them. 

Critical moment for affordability

These efforts come at a time when the value of a college education is facing increasing scrutiny, even as colleges stare down a demographic reality that will challenge future enrollment numbers.

Due to declining birthrates, demographic changes and an aging population, the number of young people in the traditional “college-age” category is expected to shrink over the next 15 years. This is a nationwide trend that, while less marked in the southern states, is nevertheless expected to impact college enrollment. Meanwhile, the pandemic had a significant short-term impact, with enrollment at colleges and universities across the country knocked back in 2020.

While WCU, SCC and HCC all still have lower enrollments than they did in 2019, enrollment has stabilized and seems to be recovering. A three-year run of increasing freshman enrollment has WCU hopeful it will recover from its pandemic setback, and HCC and SCC have both seen enrollment gains since the pandemic’s onset. Increasingly, students are enthusiastic about participating in face-to-face courses and activities, Ellison said.

“Next N.C. will make access to college even easier for many families and individuals in Haywood County and across North Carolina,” said HCC President Shelley White. “This program will help reduce financial barriers and take the concern out of the equation when making a decision about higher education. It is all about increasing access.” 

By reducing the investment required to earn a college degree, the Next N.C. Scholarship could also have a positive impact on the calculated return on investment of that degree — a metric currently under scrutiny by the UNC Board of Governors. In November, the UNC System released a study examining the return on investment of the various degree programs it offers. Funded by the N.C. General Assembly, the study estimates the cost of earning specific degrees and calculated lifetime earnings with those degrees to come up with an ROI estimate for each program. It found that 94% of undergraduate degree programs and 91% of graduate programs have a positive ROI for graduates, with the average student breaking even on their educational investment in 10 years. 

“Majorities of Americans have lost faith in the value of higher education, and the UNC System is not immune to this brand equity challenge,” Board of Governors Member Mark Holton said during the body’s Jan. 25 meeting. “The good news is that we have an important tool that we can use to help meet this challenge — the ROI study funded by the General Assembly that was unveiled in November.”

The study assessed returns on investment for specific programs at the UNC System overall and at each individual university. By early March, the universities must respond with an assessment of any low-ROI program and a plan for improvement.

Scholarship deadlines coming up 

The 2024-2025 FAFSA is now open, and while the filing deadline is still a ways away, filling it out early is a good idea — some financial aid is offered on a first-come, first-serve basis, and individual schools may have earlier priority deadlines. Additionally, a separate application to apply for undergraduate scholarships specific to WCU closes on Feb. 1.

At WCU, the priority filing date for the FAFSA is March 15. It’s May 15 at SCC and July 15 at HCC. The state filing deadline to access the Next N.C. Scholarship is June 1 for UNC System schools and Aug. 15 for community colleges.

Fill out the FAFSA at Complete the WCU scholarship application at

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