UNC-Chapel Hill Wins $1 Million Cooke Prize

cooke_prize_logo.pngLANSDOWNE, Va. – The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has received the $1 million 2017 Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence, the largest award in the nation recognizing a college or university for its success in enrolling low-income students and supporting them to successful graduation.

“We’re honoring the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a national leader and role model for providing equal educational opportunity to students based on academic merit, regardless of family income,” said Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Executive Director Harold O. Levy. “High-achieving, low-income students have proven again and again that they can excel at the most competitive colleges and universities when given the opportunity and needed financial aid. We owe them the opportunity to succeed and we owe ourselves the opportunity to benefit from all they can accomplish for our nation and the world with a higher education.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt said the university plans to raise $1 million in private funding to match the Cooke Prize and will use the combined $2 million to further expand its programs benefitting low-income students.

“We are deeply honored that the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation selected Carolina as the 2017 recipient for the Cooke Prize for Excellence in Education Equity. We have long drawn inspiration from the guiding principles of the Foundation. Carolina is committed to living those principles as we strive for excellence and equity for students across North Carolina and far beyond our state’s borders,” said Folt. “As the nation’s first public university, access and opportunity are in our DNA. We know that when our student body reflects the most talented individuals, from all backgrounds, we are a stronger University and our state and nation become stronger as well. Carolina’s approach from recruiting to preparing these future leaders is comprehensive and deep. We are dedicated to providing our students with the tools they need to lead in the uncertainty that is certain to face them and rethink many of the very disciplines they studied while at Carolina.”

A study last year by the Cooke Foundation found that only 3 percent of students at top U.S. universities come from the bottom income quartile. At the same colleges, 72 percent of the enrollment are students from the top 25 percent income bracket. This dramatic disparity shows why action is needed to enroll more high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students in such schools, Levy said.

UNC-Chapel Hill, which opened in 1795 as America’s first public university,is North Carolina’s flagship state university. It has about 18,500 undergraduate and nearly 11,000 graduate students, and ranks among America’s top public universities and top research universities. About 22 percent of undergraduates are eligible for federal Pell Grants that go to low-income students.

A recent Cooke Foundation study (LINK) calls on states to increase funding for their public flagship universities in order to give top moderate- and low-income students equal access to the public universities in their home states. The study found that many state universities are admitting growing number of students from out of state to collect higher tuitions.

UNC-Chapel Hill provides low-debt, full-need student financial aid and admits students on a need-blind basis. Its Carolina Covenant program provides debt-free financial aid for the lowest-income students.

The university awards 93 percent of financial aid based on need, and 44 percent of students get such aid. In addition to helping to pay for tuition, fees, and room and board, financial aid is available for travel, health insurance, personal expenses, books and supplies.

In addition, UNC-Chapel Hill operates outreach programs to low-income middle and high school students, bringing them to its campus to familiarize them with college life. The First Look program introduces low-income middle school students to the idea of college, building upon research that shows students who experience a college atmosphere by middle school are more likely to enroll in postsecondary education and to prepare for college while in high school. The Carolina College Advising Corps serves 23 percent of low-income public high school students in the state, employing 51 recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduates as advisers to help high school seniors identify and apply to colleges.

The university’s Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program partners with community colleges to guarantee admission to high-achieving, low-income transfer students and provides financial aid packages with little or no student debt.

This is the third year the Cooke Prize is being awarded. Vassar College received the prize in 2015 and Amherst College received it in 2016.

Other finalists for this year’s Cooke Prize were: Brown University; Rice University; Stanford University; and the University of California, Berkeley. All the finalists demonstrated thoughtful strategies as exhibited by the depth and breadth of programs on their campuses to ensure equity of experience for low-income students from admission through graduation.


The Cooke Foundation is dedicated to advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need. Since 2000, the foundation has awarded $175 million in scholarships to more than 2,300 students from 8th grade through graduate school, along with comprehensive counseling and other support services. The foundation has also provided over $97 million in grants to organizations that serve such students. www.jkcf.org

Cooke Foundation Media Contact: Amber Styles

UNC-Chapel Hill Media Contact: Kate Luck