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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been selected to help the United States once again be first in the world in college graduates.

Abigail Panter, senior associate dean for undergraduate education and psychology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, will receive $3 million over four years to develop the Finish Line project, designed to improve undergraduate retention. The grant’s executive director is Cynthia Demetriou, director of undergraduate retention in the college.

The grant comes from the Department of Education’s new First in the World program, created to drive innovations in higher education that increase college completion, value and affordability.

Of nearly 500 applications, 24 schools were selected to receive a share of the fund’s initial $75 million. The grant winners represent 17 states, 19 public, private and nonprofit four-year institutions and five public and private two-year institutions. Grants ranged in size from $1.6 million to $4 million.

Each of the winning projects addresses at least one of these priorities: increasing college access and completion, increasing community college transfer rates, increasing STEM enrollment and completion, and reducing time to completion.

“Each grantee demonstrated a high-quality, creative and sound approach to expand college access and improve student outcomes,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We are confident these projects will have a positive impact on increasing access and completion and help us reach President Obama’s 2020 goal, to once again have the highest share of college graduates in the world.”

The Finish Line Project, based in the college’s Office of Undergraduate Education, is a program for first-generation college students—including rural, transfer and historically underserved students—that includes curricular innovations, outreach and support, and pathways for timely and affordable degree completion. Campus partners for the project are the Center for Faculty Excellence, the American Indian Center and the School of Education.

“The Finish Line Project builds on a foundation of effective programs and practices that have already been piloted at Carolina,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt. “With this grant, Dr. Panter and Dr. Demetriou  will be able to combine curricular innovations, such as redesigned STEM classes that engage students through an active learning environment, and special transition courses that help students understand academic expectations. I am confident that the Finish Line Project will boost retention and graduation rates at UNC and will be a model for other programs nationwide.”

The most effective retention and degree completion programs require many different approaches and campus-wide interventions, said Panter, the grant’s principal investigator.

“Fortunately, we are at an ideal time at our University with multiple ongoing efforts to redesign key introductory (“gateway”) courses, improve access to high-impact academic experiences and provide proactive, intensive academic support to our students,” Panter said.

At Carolina, about 20 percent of undergraduates, or a little more than 3,000 students, are first-generation college students, who are twice as likely as non-first-generation students to leave college before the start of the second year. Graduation rates are also much lower for these students. Barriers include insufficient academic preparation, the need to work to pay for education, cultural differences and lack of family support.

The Finish Line Project builds on a foundation of effective programs and practices that have already been piloted at Carolina. These include curricular innovations such as redesigned STEM classes that engage students through an active learning environment and special transition courses such as “Navigating the Research University” that help students understand academic expectations.

Other resources included in the grant are curriculum mapping of community college STEM courses with UNC science courses; proactive, intensive academic advising starting before enrollment and continuing throughout a student’s time at the University; individual and group tutoring; creating faculty learning communities to encourage experimentation and collaboration; student success seminars; and professional development opportunities.

For a list of all this year’s grant winners, see

By Susan Hudson, Communications and Public Affairs