In the fall of 2004, 224 new students enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill as the first group of Carolina Covenant scholars.
The Covenant program, unveiled with great fanfare the year before, was a news-making, groundbreaking initiative aimed at getting more low-income students into college and keeping them there. Dozens of other universities, surely seeing the avalanche of good publicity UNC-CH was receiving, quickly followed suit.
Four years later, the graduation numbers are in.
Of those Covenant students who enrolled in 2004, 137 of them, or 61.4 percent, have graduated on the traditional four-year timeline for undergraduates.
By way of comparison: 2,678 of the 3,588 students in the overall freshman class that year graduated in four years. That's 74.6 percent.
So what does that mean? Shirley Ort, the university's scholarships and student aid director and architect of the Covenant plan, said this:
"It shows what we have known, that the academic performance of low socio-economic students is not as great as higher-income students,." Ort added that these students are often coming out of poor school districts or are the first in their families to go to college and are thus often not as well-prepared as other students.
But you can flip this data around as well and look at it another way. In crunching the numbers, UNC also compared the Covenant students to a control group of students from 2003 who were of similar income levels but were not in the Covenant program. Just 56.7 percent of those students graduated in four years, suggesting, perhaps, that the Covenant program, which offers significant academic and social support, helps get students across the finish line.
"I do believe that," Ort said. "I think it's the personal touch, the mentoring, and the engaging with faculty."
UNC-CH puts a great deal of money, energy and resources into making sure the Covenant scholars succeed. Read more about that here.
One last note: the Covenant students who didn't graduate in four years are largely still enrolled and on track, Ort said. Proof? The program's retention rate is 94 percent, meaning all but about six percent of the students who started the program back in 2004 have either graduated or are still enrolled.