Cash crop can’t always pay for college

More UNC students than ever qualify for need-based aid, like Daniel Adams, whose dad lost a bet on sweet potatoes. A new website tells their stories.

UNC aid ‘godsend’

Sweet potatoes are not a sure thing, UNC 2012 graduate Daniel Adams found out the hard way when he first enrolled at Carolina.

“Dad says farming is legalized gambling as a career,” said Adams quietly, smiling at his own joke. Back in the mid-1980s, before Daniel was born, his parents, Travis and Flor Adams, had a run of bad luck on their Johnston County sweet potato farm in Four Oaks. One year bad weather took the crop. The next year it was a potato packer who filed for bankruptcy – after Travis Adams had shipped him all his sweet potatoes.

READ ABOUT OTHER GREAT UNC STUDENTS WHO NEEDED FINANCIAL AID

Travis Adams had to file for bankruptcy and auction off his land and equipment. Since then, he paid off his debt, grew cucumbers for Mount Olive Pickle Company for a while, then built back his sweet potato business, plus soybeans and winter wheat, on about 300 acres of mostly rented farmland. He was in fairly good shape when Daniel got accepted at Carolina. But disaster struck the farm again in Daniel’s first year of college, and Adams lost hundreds of bins of sweet potatoes that rotted instead of curing while in storage.

“When I was filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) that first year,” Daniel Adams recalled, “there were negative thousands of dollars loss on his side.” His mom’s salary as an office manager didn’t add that much. Daniel spent his summers working for his father on the farm, which helped the family but didn’t provide extra money for college.

When Adams got the word that he had been named a James M. Johnston Scholar at UNC, he said the mood at home was “heading into joy.” All students with financial need are considered for Johnston Scholarships, but merit determines the winners, and Daniel was the class valedictorian of South Johnston High. Stipends vary among recipients according to need. “It was a godsend in my house,” Adams said. “They raise the scholarship to meet the level of need.”

By contrast, Adams lost a $1,500-a-year Robert C. Byrd Congressional Scholarship in his senior year because of federal budget cuts.

Need-based grants and scholarships mean that fewer students need to take out student loans and accumulate debt. Of Carolina’s 2011 graduates, only 35 percent borrowed to finance their education. Their average cumulative debt was $15,472, well below the national average of $25,000.

“I had kind of accepted the idea that I would have to take out loans,” Adams said. But he didn’t, and so in May he graduated from Carolina debt-free. “That’s huge. It’s one thing to be stressed about finding a job when you graduate. It’s another to be looking at $30,000 in debt. That puts you 10 feet behind the gate before you even get started.”

Read about other great UNC students who needed financial aid.

Published July 30, 2012.