COVID relief, free tuition help defray college costs

FINANCIAL AID: Grants of $750 or more have helped students with the cost of college, says Mars Hill University provost Tracy Parkinson. Photo courtesy of Mars Hill University

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing belts to tighten. But even at the best of times, the cost of a higher education can be out of reach for many. While college costs in Western North Carolina are generally lower than the nationwide average of $35,720 per year, according to EducationData.org, sticker shock can still come alongside the tuition bill.

At private Brevard College, tuition costs $28,400 for the 2021-22 school year. Fees, room and board push the total annual cost to $41,650. And while WNC’s public colleges are less expensive, tuition still isn’t pocket change. UNC Asheville’s tuition and fees for 2021-22 come to $7,318.50 for in-state residents and $24,666.50 for out-of-state students, not including housing and meal plan costs.

The effects of the pandemic are adding pressure. Job loss, reduced income, increased medical expenses and technology costs are the main financial hardships students have reported experiencing, Shannon Shepherd, UNCA interim associate director of financial aid, tells Xpress. Research from the National Student Clearinghouse found that enrollment at two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions dropped 1.9% in North Carolina from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

Higher education institutions in WNC are responding with a variety of programs to defray the costs. Many are related to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund III, a component of the federal American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, which provides $39.6 billion to colleges and universities. Other funds have been made available through foundations, the state of North Carolina and federal Pell Grants.

Free tuition

Haywood Community College’s Tuition Free Guarantee is in its third year of offering free tuition for two years to high school graduates from Haywood County, explains Michael Coleman, vice president of student services. To qualify, students must have an existing financial need that is not covered by federal aid or scholarships. But the Clyde-based college announced July 22 that it would expand free tuition to all students for 2021-22, citing support from coronavirus relief funds.

Some HCC students have also gotten financial help beyond tuition. Previous rounds of COVID-19 relief, together totaling more than $614,000, were distributed as grants of up to $900 each. Those funds, which were expended by the end of July, helped students with “emergency costs” related to child care, housing, utilities, health care and food.

Spreading the wealth

Coronavirus relief funding is also allowing A-B Tech in Asheville to help students through a program called Trailblazer Promise. Qualified students enrolled in the fall semester were able to receive $1,500 in grants for tuition and fees on a first-come, first-served basis. (Because applications ended on Sept. 1, the total amount allocated was unavailable as of press time.)

Scholarships paid for with coronavirus relief money are helping A-B Tech even more. The A-B Tech Works Scholarship is available for students whose income has been impacted by COVID-19; the $1,500 or $3,000 scholarships are funded from the $484,000 the school has budgeted for the program in the 2021-22 year. A-B Tech has also budgeted $209,000 for student debt relief based on how much debt each student incurred since the pandemic began, says spokesperson Kerri Glover.

At Mars Hill University, grants of $750 or more are available this fall for eligible students. Tracy Parkinson, the school’s provost, says 888 students of an estimated 1,000-plus student body qualify for some level of relief.

Enrollment down

But not even offers of free tuition or emergency grants can surmount some obstacles facing potential students — at least at HCC, which enrolled about 10% fewer students in 2021 than in 2020. “This is largely due to the pandemic,” confirms Coleman.

However, Coleman continues, prior to the July announcement about free tuition, enrollment was down approximately 25% from 2019. He believes the initiatives had a positive impact. “We have heard stories of individuals who would not have had the opportunity to attend HCC had these financial commitments not been made,” he says.

Coleman continues that HCC doesn’t have data to support any demographic group benefiting more or less than another. “With the information we have gathered, it appears that everyone is really benefiting,” he says. “This is truly a holistic opportunity for all.”

Kortni R. Campbell, UNCA vice chancellor for admission & financial aid, declined to give specifics on how enrollment has been impacted due to coronavirus. But she says COVID-19 relief funding has helped retention. “We are grateful for the support in helping students move forward in their educational goals,” she adds.

Mars Hill University students are also being helped. In fall 2019, undergraduate enrollment was 1,042; preliminary enrollment numbers for fall 2021 indicate a 6% increase from 2019, Parkinson tells Xpress. “We’ve seen very encouraging numbers of students returning from semester to semester, and we know that these funds are helping make a college degree accessible to them,” he says. “When we have this kind of support for students, we know it can make a difference for them, their families, and their future.”

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