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Many students were uneasy about college during the pandemic. North Carolina community colleges say more financial aid is available now

Schools are working to grow enrollment again after numbers sank during COVID-19.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina’s community colleges are starting to once again see more students on campus after a year of sharp decline, during which potential students navigated the pandemic.

But officials at schools in the Charlotte area say they believe even more students would be back on campus if they knew about this one big thing: the money available to them.

Leila Turner knew she wanted to go straight from high school last year to college. 

“I’m very dedicated to getting my degree so I can go into the workforce," she said.

But she wasn’t sure how she could afford school, especially during a pandemic.

“I was actually going to go to a four-year college but then Central Piedmont offered me the scholarship, so I decided to take that instead -- a whole weight off my shoulders,” she said.

Turner is one of the lucky ones; she knew there was financial aid to be had.

“It’s such a big impact because I don’t have to worry about getting a full-time job or how I’m gonna pay for college – the stress and weight is not a burden at all,” she said.

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But for many would-be students across the Carolinas, money is one of the big things holding them back from higher education, especially during the last two years. At the height of the pandemic according to the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges, the state’s community colleges saw a 15% drop in enrollment. Fears about COVID-19, the need to care for family members, and money were all reasons for the lack of students on campus. 

Central Piedmont Community College marketing director Jeff Lowrance said a lot of students don’t know there is financial aid available to them. 

“There are chances, good chances, students may be able to come here debt-free, they just need to talk to us," he said.

There are federal and state dollars available, and of course scholarships directly from the college, and not all require top grades.

So far, almost 1,300 CPCC students have taken advantage of what’s called the Longleaf Commitment Community College grant program. The governor launched it in the throes of COVID-19 in May 2021. It's for high school students and is meant to ensure that recent high school graduates from low- and middle-income families will receive at least $2,800 in federal and state grants to cover tuition and most fees at any of the state’s 58 community colleges. The program supplements the federal Pell Grant and existing aid by providing an additional $700 to $2,800 grant per year. 

To date, 11,604 students across the Tar Heel State have received a Longleaf Commitment Grant, with the total amount of aid awarded totaling $4,614,021. 70% of the grants have gone to students with family incomes less than $60,000. The 1,296 CPCC students who have received Longleaf Commitment grants have received aid totaling $716,089.

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Schools are also working to try to make students feel more comfortable, making mental health counseling more readily available.

“We also know students are having mental health concerns, they may not be in a good place mentally to come back to school,” Lowrance said.

Boni Facio Sanchez will graduate this summer. He credits the pandemic with providing the motivation he needed.

“I think the pandemic gave me the push I needed to go back to school, because once the pandemic hit I had a lot of free time where we weren’t working," he said.

Sanchez is certainly not alone in getting back to the classroom; the state board says enrollment is now up at more than half of North Carolina’s community colleges. Enrollment went up 4% at CPCC last fall and another 4% this semester. College leaders are hoping it’s a trend that will continue.

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to the Defenders team by emailing money@wcnc.com.

“We’re trying to make students understand: we realize everyone has been through a really tough time, but it’s time to start thinking about your future again," Lowrance said.

For students and families who are wondering how they can pay for college, Central Piedmont Community College has a lot of resources to assist students. You can check out this link for information about grants. For information about the Central Piedmont Community College Foundation's scholarships, click here. And if you need to get started on looking at CPCC's degree programs, you can visit this site.

Contact Michelle at mboudin@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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