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Perspective | The state wants to help students pay for college. Many don’t know it

Many North Carolinians are concerned about the cost of college. In its recent review of the state’s educational attainment efforts, myFutureNC reports that “nearly 2 in 3 prospective students identify cost as a top barrier to (college) enrollment.”

But cost doesn’t have to be a barrier.

Each year, the state of North Carolina sets aside millions of dollars to make attendance at one of the state’s 58 community colleges, 16 public universities, or 41 private colleges and universities more affordable and accessible for students. Unfortunately, many of the students who need this assistance the most are not aware these funds exist.

This spring, students across North Carolina will receive their financial aid letters for the 2023-24 school year. For those who qualify, the letters will include the state’s new need-based scholarship that will make college affordable for more North Carolina students.

During last year’s legislative session, the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA), the UNC System, and the North Carolina Community College System worked with the General Assembly to create a new scholarship program that combines the UNC Need-Based Grant, the Education Lottery Scholarship, and the Community College Grant into one scholarship for students attending the state’s community colleges and UNC institutions.

The scholarship amount is based on a student and family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and Annual Gross Income (AGI) and supplements the federal Pell Grant award. North Carolina students whose EFC is below $7,500 and whose family’s AGI is less than $75,000 are guaranteed at least $2,800 in combined state and federal aid for community college tuition and fees and at least $5,000 toward tuition and fees at the state’s four-year public universities.

Additional state funds are also available for students with the most need. By combining scholarship funds, the state is making a college education more affordable for more North Carolinians.

To receive the scholarship, students must complete the FAFSA on time and qualify for in-state tuition.

Yet, the new scholarship is not the only way the state helps students and families reduce the cost of education.

Need-Based scholarship for private colleges and universities

The state also funds need-based grants through its $91 million appropriation for students attending private colleges and universities in North Carolina. This grant is available at 41 of North Carolina’s private nonprofit institutions. To be eligible for the scholarship, students must complete the FAFSA on time and qualify for in-state tuition.

Forgivable loans

Each year, the state sets aside $20 million for forgivable loans, which allow students to repay loans through service to the state. The Forgivable Education Loans for Service funds students working toward high-demand occupations — such as allied health, education, and medical services. The NC Teaching Fellows Program funds students who are studying to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or special education and committed to teaching in North Carolina public schools.

NC 529 Plan

Family savings are another key part of paying for college, and the NC 529 Plan is a big part of that. Across the state, families have collectively saved almost $3 billion for their students’ future education.

Families and students can open a NC 529 Plan with a $25 contribution. Additional contributions can be made at any time. Perhaps the biggest advantage of the NC 529 program is tax-free earnings. The money invested may grow over time and any earnings are free from federal and state income tax when they are withdrawn and used for Qualified Education Expenses.

Other ways to save on tuition

North Carolina offers a number of other ways to save on tuition costs. The UNC System’s Fixed Tuition Program freezes a student’s tuition at a UNC constituent institution at the time of enrollment if the student remains continuously enrolled for eight consecutive fall and spring semesters.

The NC Promise program offers in-state students $500 tuition per semester at one of four state universities: Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University. All North Carolina students can apply.

NC Community College System’s Career and College Promise program offers high school students the opportunity to earn college credit tuition-free while still enrolled in high school.

What’s next?

At SEAA, we will continue to work with local school systems, nonprofits, and other partners across our state to help students complete the FAFSA and to increase awareness of the financial aid programs that can make college a reality for students and families. Each year, SEAA and the College Foundation, Inc. train hundreds of high school counselors on financial aid programs their students can access. Education nonprofits across the state are doing the same.

However, more college access professionals and more collaboration among education leaders, partners, and communities will be critical to ensuring students receive the information and support they need to make college a priority, complete the FAFSA, and apply and pay for college.

Our state is in a great position to move the needle on our attainment goal. We have the tools and the funding in place. Together, we can educate our students and families on the resources available to them to help them pay for college.  

Go here for more information on ways to plan, apply, and save for college from the College Foundation of North Carolina.

Andrea Poole

Andrea Poole is the executive director of the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority. She has more than 20 years of service to the state of North Carolina, including more than a decade focused on higher education. Immediately prior to joining the authority in January 2021, she served as vice president for strategic initiatives as the North Carolina Community College System.