April Oxendine stared in disbelief at her computer screen during a routine online check of her student account at UNC Pembroke.
It showed a zero balance. Oxendine immediately contacted the cashier’s office and was shocked to learn she was among 1,300 students whose debt was paid utilizing pandemic funding, allowing students to continue their studies this fall and hundreds more to begin the semester debt-free.
“I cried,” she said. “I’m not working right now, and at the time, my son was experiencing health problems, so this was an unexpected blessing.”
Sophomore Xavier McLaurin experienced a similar feeling of relief when he learned his nearly $1,000 debt had been erased.
“I knew I had a balance from last semester. My family couldn’t afford to pay it, and even though I work, I couldn’t pay it. So, it felt good to be given a clean slate and to know I had a real chance to come back this semester. I’m grateful.”
A former student-athlete at Scotland High School, McLaurin plans to study physical education with hopes of one day becoming a football coach.
Oxendine is on track to earn her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in December and plans to seek a position with the county school system.
UNCP paid the debts with $5 million from its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund III (HEERF III), part of the American Rescue Plan that provided $39 billion to higher education institutions nationwide to serve students and ensure learning continues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of the total funding, the university issued $3 million in housing stipends and $1 million each for meal and book stipends. Some of the funds were also used to pay off library and parking fines.
Undergraduate students are experiencing significant savings–upwards of $7,500 for a semester–with the HEERF aid combined with the NC Promise Tuition Plan, which lowers tuition to $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 per semester for out-of-state students.
Additionally, the university allocated $59,000 this past summer to assist students who struggled during the 2020-2021 academic year due to the effects of COVID19. The Brave Boost scholarship program was developed to help students improve their GPAs and get back on track with their educational goals.
“Many of our students are low-income and/or come from economically distressed counties in rural North Carolina, so providing financial assistance to our students during the pandemic was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Derek Oxendine, interim dean of the University College and associate vice chancellor for Student Success.
“When students have a balance from a previous semester or lose financial aid eligibility, the harsh reality is UNCP potentially loses that student forever. Brave Boost scholarships and eliminating past-due debt prevented this by removing economic barriers that hinder retention, persistence and ultimately graduation for our students,” Oxendine added.