A dangerous raid on NC student aid

Thousands of North Carolina families may be in for a rude surprise as financial aid award letters start arriving this month. If colleges don’t change their overall budgeting practices, financial aid won’t go as far this year as last. The same will happen next year and every year thereafter.

The UNC Board of Governors, led by a new majority, has dictated that no public college may dedicate more than 15 percent of tuition revenue to financial aid. No other university spending is limited in this way.

We shudder at the impact at tuition-dependent schools like Fayetteville State. One of us attends Fayetteville. The other led a campaign against financial aid cuts at the University of Virginia last year. We can tell you what is going to happen.

For many, Fayetteville State will be out of the question without high levels of need-based financial aid. A college education will be left to a mix of hope and chance: applying for private scholarships that may or may not be awarded or, if awarded, may or may not be enough to cover costs. The only thing guaranteed would be exceptionally high levels of student debt.

Maybe the board doesn’t understand how deeply students fear high levels of debt and how the prospect forces us to work full-time jobs to reduce expenses, which delays graduation. In some cases, it forces students to withdraw from our institutions altogether.

Even for students who survive North Carolina’s financial aid cut if it’s not reversed, the increased levels of debt they’ll likely face will undoubtedly give them a negative outlook on their college experience and future life choices.

We need to make North Carolina leaders understand that college access for all is in everyone’s interest.

When the University of Virginia tried to cut grant aid to low-income families

last year, alumni and students led a grassroots campaign directed at Virginia’s Board of Governors. Over 8,000 petition signatures, letters from state legislators, school boards, civil rights groups and on-campus student protests combined to get UVa to shift course.

We need to see the same kind of support for college affordability in North Carolina.

We should be learning lessons from colleges like UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, Appalachian State and the additional 50 colleges nationwide that cap student loan debt instead of student financial aid. We need to create incentives to keep costs down and financial aid up as opposed to the other way around.

Instead, we estimate that over 20,000 students from the lowest-income families attending those three colleges and enrolled at N.C. Central, Elizabeth City State and Winston-Salem State are in danger of having to borrow more, work heavier hours, drop to part-time status or leave school completely as tuition goes up and financial aid either stays flat or goes down.

All six schools already exceed the board’s financial aid cap. Two more are very close.

Board members justify the financial aid cap by saying it’s unfair to ask families who don’t qualify for aid to subsidize those who do. They contend the cap will help middle-income families.

Turns out, though, that middle class families typically are ineligible for government student aid programs like the Pell Grant. The only grant aid they tend to get is institutional financial aid. The more institutional aid is limited, the more middle class students will suffer.

The Board of Governors is right that working families need college to be more affordable. But the board should rescind its policy and instead focus on capping student loan debt for those from low and hard-pressed middle-income families.

Regardless, North Carolina families should tell our state leaders to stop the raid on financial aid. We’ve started an online petition calling on the state to cap student debt instead of financial aid. College, especially public universities, should be affordable for all.

Quantia Sutton is a senior at Fayetteville State University. She is the Attorney General for the Student Government Association. Hajar Ahmed is a 2014 graduate of the University of Virginia.

Sign the petition

Find the call to cap student debt instead of financial aid at nando.com/aidpetition