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The Carolina Covenant helps close the gap for earning degrees between low-income and other students, according to a new report card. The University compared Carolina Covenant Scholars who enrolled in 2005 with a group of 2003 entering students who would have qualified then for the program, which provides a debt-free education.

Carolina Covenant students performed 9.6 percentage points better in four-year graduation rates (66.3 percent) than the comparison group, according to the study conducted by the University’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.

Graduation rates for all students gained 2.5 percentage points and, overall, were slightly higher. The retention rate for 2005 Covenant Scholars in their third year was 4 percentage points higher (90.2 percent) than for the 2003 group and very close to the mark for all students (93.5 percent).

Most noteworthy of all: the graduation rate among male Covenant Scholars increased a whopping 27 percent over the 2003 male comparison group, narrowing the achievement gap between Covenant men and women.

“We’re pleased the report card shows that the Carolina Covenant is doing much more than removing socioeconomic barriers for our students,” said Shirley Ort, associate vice provost and director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid. “The mix of financial, academic and personal support appears to be contributing significantly to improved retention and graduate rates of students from low-income families.”

The report card represents a commitment by the University to conduct rigorous research to evaluate the program. Ongoing research and evaluation always has been part of the program. Findings also help inform administrators about University policy.

Under the Carolina Covenant, eligible low-income students who are admitted can enroll without worrying about how they will pay for it. And, if they work 10 hours to 12 hours per week in a federal work-study job, they can graduate debt-free. The Carolina Covenant also includes academic and personal support services to help Covenant Scholars make the most of their college experience and succeed in completing their undergraduate degrees.

Carolina was the first major public U.S. university to announce plans for a program like the Carolina Covenant in 2003. Since then, more than 90 similar programs have been established at public and private U.S. colleges and universities. Most remain in place. Many of these programs, like Carolina’s, responded to rapidly changing demographics and social needs, such as rising high school dropout and poverty rates.

In fall 2010, Carolina enrolled 558 new Carolina Covenant Scholars – more than 11 percent of the first-year class. Currently, 2,200 Covenant Scholars are studying at Carolina, and more than 2,900 students have benefitted from the program since it began.