All UNC System HBCUs are offering free summer classes to help students get ahead
Denise Buckhana plans to graduate from North Carolina A&T State University debt-free next spring with a degree in computer science. She's taking two summer classes right now to help her get there.
“I am knocking them out,” Buckhana said.
Buckhana calls herself a non-traditional student. At age 27, she's going back to college. She studied zoology years ago at Missouri Southern State University but, she says, life got in the way. Then she met her husband, who convinced her to move to North Carolina and come to his alma mater, North Carolina A&T.
“We got married and for basically our marriage gift, he was like, 'Hey, why don't you just quit? So you can go to college,'” Buckhana said. “We’re paying out of pocket right now, because I already have loans for Missouri.”
So it was a welcome surprise when she discovered N.C. A&T was offering free textbooks and summer classes to all students this year.
All the historically Black colleges and universities in the UNC System are using federal COVID-19 relief funds to offer free summer courses this year to at least some students, as part of a range of initiatives that directly benefit students. Some have also given housing and dining discounts and emergency grants and canceled outstanding bursar balances for current and returning students.
The precise slate of offerings and eligibility for benefits have differed across institutions, but Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, North Carolina A&T State, North Carolina Central and Winston-Salem State universities have each given their students some combination of those benefits thanks to substantial federal funding granted to HBCUs during the pandemic.
At N.C. A&T, in-state students can take up to two courses for free each summer, and out-of-state students can take one free of charge per summer.
“I didn't actually know that summer school was free until they were like, ‘Oh, you have nothing on your bill.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay, summer school is free. Oh, that's fabulous.’ So I grabbed as many classes as I could,” Buckhana said.
That's exactly what administrators are hoping students like her will do — take advantage of summer school and graduate on time with as little debt as possible.
“It's really allowed them to catch up and in many instances get ahead,” said N.C. A&T’s vice chancellor for business and finance Robert Pompey.
N.C. A&T received the most federal aid in the UNC System, thanks to a boost for HBCUs
All universities received substantial federal COVID-19 relief packages, but HBCUs got a significant boost. Congress set aside 7.5% of all its higher education aid packages just for HBCUs. That additional pot of money was divided among schools based on their number of low-income students who qualified for a federal Pell grant.
Since N.C. A&T is the largest HBCU in North Carolina and the country, that added up to a lot of financial support, more than $188 million in total.
N.C. A&T received more federal relief funding than any other university in the UNC System. All the federal higher education funding must be spent by June 30, 2023. Pompey led the strategy on how to spend it.
“What we're thinking about is, what is it that most challenges a student that's trying to graduate from a university?” Pompey said. “Well, one of the things that challenges a student is, sometimes they have to make a hard decision: do I buy textbooks? Or do I pay my rent?”
About 19% of A&T students are both first generation college goers and Pell grant recipients. Pompey says his team thought about ways they could help students who might be trying to work and go to school at the same time to pay for basic needs, like books and housing.
“There's not one student that's been to our university in the last year, that's not benefited from something that we've done,” Pompey said.
The university is spending about $40 million in relief funds each year through summer 2023 on what Pompey calls student success initiatives. All students can take free summer courses and get free textbooks for all their classes, all residential students receive housing and dining discounts and all first-year students receive free iPads.
Pompey estimates that an undergraduate student who is eligible for every student success initiative could receive direct benefits of greater than $4,000 per year.
Pompey says nearly a third of A&T students are taking advantage of the summer classes this session. While some HBCUs across the country have put their funding toward canceling student debt of former students, Pompey says the university’s strategy prevents student debt.
“All we're doing is really trying to make you as successful as you can be as a student, get you out of here as timely as we can be,” Pompey said. "And if we're getting you out here timely, we're preventing you from having to take additional debt."
N.C. A&T offered summer courses for free last year, this year and will again next year. Pompey says if the initiative shows a significant impact on four-year graduation rates, the university will look for ways to continue to fund summer courses after federal relief expires next June.