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Keeping College Education Within Reach

Undergraduate student points out into the ground at the 2024 UNC commencement ceremony.

Debbie Farris
May 23, 2024

Keeping a college education affordable and accessible is central to who UNC is. Those attributes represent the university’s core values of students first, social mobility and diversity in action. The increasing struggle of students and families to pay for college, or even to delay or forgo a college education, prompted the university to create a program to remove financial barriers: The UNC Tuition Promise.

The new program, which launches in fall 2024, covers 100% of standard tuition and mandatory fees for eligible incoming and current undergraduate students who are Colorado residents whose household’s Adjusted Gross Income falls below $65,000 or whose Student Aid Index (SAI) is 3,000 or less.

As a regional public university, UNC takes its promise to students seriously. 

“The UNC Tuition Promise exemplifies UNC’s commitment to being Students First,” said President Andy Feinstein. “At UNC, we strive to eliminate barriers and offer students an affordable path to earning a degree, bettering their lives and their communities, and contributing to the state of Colorado.”   

For students from low-income families, the path to a college degree can be particularly challenging. Historically, people of lower socioeconomic status have had limited educational opportunities after high school. This disparity has hit families from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds and students who are the first in their family to attend college even harder. Financial concerns are one of the most significant barriers preventing these students from graduating from college. 

This has prompted the university to double down on its commitment to low-income students with the UNC Tuition Promise, which pays for up to 16 credits or a maximum of $5,836 per semester. The aid will increase as tuition and fees increase over time to maintain steady financial support for the duration of a student’s academic education and offer peace of mind and reduced stress allowing students to remain in college and persist toward graduation and upward financial and social mobility.

A 2017 study from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation reported that students from the bottom socioeconomic quartile are eight times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students from the top socioeconomic quartile — 7.4% versus 60%. 

UNC is committed to closing that equity gap. In addition to being transparent when communicating financial information to students and parents so they can make more informed decisions, the university has developed programs that supplement state and federal aid to ease students’ financial burden. 

Students and alumni describe UNC as a place where they feel they belong. That sense of belonging is an attribute that is central to the university. Last year, UNC launched another important initiative to help ensure that Colorado high school students know that they belong at UNC — the Colorado First-Year Admissions Guarantee program. 

This new program simplifies the college admissions process and helps boost clarity and confidence among high school students who are considering college as a next step. The first of its kind in the state, this program guarantees admission to eligible Colorado high school students and demonstrates to them that college is attainable. Together with the UNC Tuition Promise, UNC is making a strong case to attract students who might otherwise not enroll in college. Since implementation, UNC has experienced an increase in the quality of students applying and admitted to the university.

“When you pair the Tuition Promise with the Colorado First-Year Admission Guarantee initiative, UNC is well-positioned to serve as Colorado’s premier regional comprehensive institution where equitable access and success are at the core of the student experience,”
said Feinstein.

UNC’s Admissions Guarantee for first-year Colorado resident students removes the guesswork from the admissions process, offering transparency and certainty. Students who are academically qualified and meet standard requirements are guaranteed automatic admission into the university.

Students from Weld County also benefit from additional support when they attend UNC, thanks to the Bright Futures program. Through the tuition assistance program, qualifying students living in the county receive $3,500 per year when they attend UNC. Bright Futures, a Weld County workforce initiative designed to strengthen the community, has no income requirements for recipients and scholarships do not need to be repaid. 

These tuition assistance and scholarship programs make earning a UNC degree more affordable and accessible. With a clear focus on students first, UNC provides significant financial aid and support for students to complete their degrees, setting them up for success in their careers and their lives. However, sometimes a financial gap remains. Donor-funded scholarships help supplement financial aid programs making dollars go further, so UNC students graduate debt-free or with substantially lower debt. 

“Our alumni and friends are highly invested in helping today’s students succeed and often that means supporting scholarships to help them persist to graduation,” Vice President for University Advancement Allie Steg Haskett, ’03 said. 

“Last year, UNC awarded more than 2,000 donor-funded scholarships totaling nearly $7.5 million. These donor investments are a vote of confidence in today’s students and a critical way that UNC keeps a college education within reach for more students.”  

UNC students graduate with less debt than any other four-year public doctoral university in Colorado, thanks to a combination of financial aid and scholarships. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average student loan debt (both federal and private) topped $37,088 in 2023. UNC graduates fare much better after earning their undergraduate degree — with a median federal loan debt
of $20,470. 

 Catalyzing economic mobility for students with high financial need

Despite financial aid and programs like the UNC Tuition Promise that help reduce the burden on students, a college education comes at a cost. And while cost is an important factor, so is value.

Economist David Autor attributes the growing education gap as a major cause of income inequality: “… the inevitable sticker shock that households feel when confronting the cost of college should not obscure the fact that the real lifetime earnings premium to college education has likely never been higher.”

In fact, people who earned a four-year bachelor’s degree earn an average of $2.8 million over a 40-year career, nearly double what high school graduates make in the same period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, 2023).

However, according to a poll by the Wall Street Journal and NORC at the University of Chicago in 2023, the public has grown increasingly skeptical about the benefits of a college degree. But only 1% of the workforce reflects workers without a college degree who earn $130,000 or more, as reported in a study “Learning and Earning by Degrees” published last year by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

A bachelor’s degree has proven resilient and offers protection to weather the ups and downs of job markets. People with a bachelor’s degree are highly employable and adaptable in a changing workplace. They also face much lower unemployment rates: 3.5% compared to 6.2% for those with only a high school diploma, reports BLS. The unemployment rate is lowest for those with a bachelor’s or higher degree, nearly one-fifth of the unemployment rate for those without a college degree, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The Tuition Promise initiative is a testament to UNC’s commitment to serving Colorado students by removing financial barriers to enrolling and completing their degree programs,” said Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Services Cedric Howard, Ed.D.  

Helping students pay for college goes beyond covering their costs and reducing their debt load. It means increasing students’ and parents’ understanding of the cost and value of investing in a UNC education. The university remains steadfast in its commitment to address large and small financial obstacles students face during their education so they can persist through graduation without racking up overwhelming, permanent debt.

The Tuition Promise program will benefit approximately 1,000 currently enrolled undergraduates and all incoming students who are Colorado residents or ASSET-eligible students (undocumented students who attended a Colorado high school for at least one year before graduation or completed their GED in Colorado). 

There is no application, so the process is simple for students. To qualify, they just need to be full-time students pursuing their first bachelor’s degree and meet program requirements, which include the following:  

  • Be a Colorado resident or eligible ASSET student.
  • Have a household Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of $65,000 or less or a Student Aid Index of 3,000 or less.  
  • Be enrolled in 12 to 16 credits and maintain satisfactory academic progress, a requirement for students to receive federal aid. 
  • File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or Colorado Application for State Financial Aid (CASFA) by June 1.
  • Apply for and receive College Opportunity Fund (COF) stipend, which provides per-credit funding from the state to off-set tuition for eligible in-state students.