Closing the achievement gap

For Korde Tuttle, becoming a Carolina Covenant Scholar has completely transformed his college experience.

“For me, being a Covenant Scholar has meant being supported in ways that transcend financial assistance, though an enormous burden has been lifted off of my family,” says Tuttle, a dramatic art and communication studies major from Charlotte who will graduate in May with highest honors. “It’s really given me an opportunity to thrive and excel without having to necessarily worry about the financial aspect of my education.”

Tuttle’s experience is reflected in a new report that shows that the program has made large strides in closing the achievement gap between students from low-income families and their peers.

The report compares Carolina Covenant Scholars who enrolled in fall 2008 and graduated in spring 2012 to a group of students who started at UNC in 2003 and who would have qualified for the program had it existed at the time. The Covenant, which provides a debt-free education to participants, started in 2004 as a first-of-its kind program.

Four-year graduation rate of Covenant Scholars at 74.2 percent

The report shows that the four-year graduation rate of Covenant Scholars has grown to 74.2 percent, an increase of 17.5 percentage points compared to the 2003 group. By 2012, the gap in the four-year graduation rate between Covenant Scholars and all students narrowed by two-thirds, from a 17.6 percentage point gap to a 6.3 percentage point gap.

More than 4,000 students have participated in the program since it began and five classes of Covenant Scholars have graduated. Students who are accepted into the program are awarded grants, scholarships and/or work study opportunities to pay for college and graduate debt free.

The strongest gains among Covenant Scholars, according to the report, have been made by men, particularly black men.

  • The four-year graduation rates for black male Covenant Scholars grew to nearly 66 percent in 2012 compared to 33 percent from the 2003 group.
  • The rate for all male Covenant Scholars grew to 70.6 percent compared to 40 percent.
  • The rate for all female Covenant Scholars grew to 76.5 percent compared to 64.3 percent.

The news is good for all of Carolina, says Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid. “When you raise the performance of the group you have on campus that has been struggling, you have the effect of raising the overall campus.”

Covenant Scholars are admitted to Carolina through the same criteria as all students, without regard to financial need. With an average grade point average of 3.0, the scholars are nearly on par with all Carolina students, whose average grade point average is 3.2, the report notes.

 “I believe the program has opened up opportunities in terms of support and access to resources,” says Tuttle, who will teach English and literature in New York this summer through a program that helps high-achieving low-income students prepare for college

Giving back is important

Giving back is important to Tuttle. He is one of six children and two of his siblings are in college, too. Tuttle says family medical issues in conjunction with a downturn in the economy caused financial hardship for his family. Becoming a Covenant Scholar has taken the financial burden off his family and allowed Tuttle to focus on just his education. As part of his honor’s thesis, he wrote a play about masculinity and barber shops in the South and is working to get it published.

Tuttle says the Carolina Covenant staff, particularly Fred Clark, a professor of romance languages and academic coordinator for the Covenant, and Michael Highland, assistant academic coordinator for the program, take a lot of time to ensure that the students feel supported and excel at Carolina.

“They go out of their way, above and beyond, to make sure students have what they need,” Tuttle says.

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Read more about the Carolina Covenant and profiles of Covenant Scholars.

Published April 26, 2013.