UNC Greensboro aims to keep students in school, on track

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The odds of completing  a four-year degree is so daunting that an estimated 36 million Americans have attended but never received a diploma. It’s especially challenging for low-income students who may lack funding and other support.

To spotlight the problem, California filmmakers Jaye and Adam Fenderson created a documentary, Unlikely, that had its North Carolina debut at UNC Greensboro last week.

At a lunch attended by several N.C. lawmakers,  Adam Fenderson told attendees that he was “blown away” at UNCG’s efforts to assist struggling students. Talk about the issue far outweighs action at most campuses that the couple has visited over the last few years, he said.

UNC Greensboro

UNC Greensboro students Margaree Brown, Mckayla Bohannon and Nicholas Smurthwaite

UNCG’s emphasis on the issue was obvious from candid remarks at the luncheon hosted by Provost Dana Dunn and Chancellor Frank Gilliam Jr.

The university doesn’t pretend to compete with better-financed peers jockeying for top national academic ratings, says Gilliam, who worked at UCLA before coming to North Carolina in 2015.

He said UNCG’s goal is to boost economic prospects of lower-income students and “remake the middle class of North Carolina” by creating a steady stream of talented teachers, nurses, small-business owners and other critical positions.

About half of UNCG’s students qualify for federal Pell Grants that hinge on income levels, compared with a national average of 32%. Moreover, African-American students make up about a quarter of the enrollment, which Gilliam notes is remarkable given that UNCG operates within blocks of N.C. A&T State University, often called the nation’s best historically black academic institution.

UNCG’s efforts include programs to trigger prompt responses when faculty members notice struggling students; an emergency loan fund; and emphasizing that all faculty and staff prioritize caring for its 19,000 students. “We’re the gateway to economic mobility,” Dunn said.

At the lunch, three students described how UNCG’s interventions have kept them motivated despite limited resources. Margaree Brown, a sophomore from Everetts in Martin County, told of how Greensboro seemed like a different world than Everetts, which has a population of about 160. Each of her five brothers dropped out of college, she say, reinforcing her commitment to earning a degree.

Nicholas Smurthwaite, a senior English major from Locust in Cabarrus County, told of working 28 hours a week — the maximum permitted by UNCG — to pay his bills and support his family, which is experiencing unemployment.

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