Author: Jessie Holmes
Destiny Perez had just begun her first week of classes at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem in 2021 when she learned she was awarded the Longleaf Commitment Grant. While she had already qualified for a Federal Pell Grant, it didn’t cover all her expenses. But North Carolina’s new grant program guaranteed she could pursue her Associates of Arts degree debt-free by supplementing her existing financial aid. Perez says it was a significant opportunity, both as a first-generation student and as the oldest of six children.
“Being able to come to community college was a way for me to set a good example for all the younger kids below me,” says Perez. “My family has been very supportive.”
With that financial burden lifted, one of the first things she did was upgrade her laptop which was on its last leg after years of online classes as a pandemic-era high school student. Now Perez is preparing to graduate as an honors student this spring, with a goal of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in marketing or business.
“It's meant so much to me,” says Perez. “I've been able to add value to myself with my education, and I've also been able to meet so many new people.”
Success Across the "Great 58"
You’ll find similar success stories across North Carolina’s 58 community colleges. Nearly two years after Governor Roy Cooper first announced the program, 25,700 students have been impacted for a total of $15.9 million in financial aid through strategic use of federal COVID-19 relief.
“In the midst of the pandemic the governor knew that families were making really difficult decisions about higher education,” says Dr. Andrea DeSantis, an education and workforce policy advisor to Governor Cooper. “As they were balancing costs and job loss, this was a great opportunity to extend a debt-free community college education to our graduates.”
Investing in Education and Our Workforce
Governor Cooper launched the program for 2021 high school graduates in low-to-middle income families using $31.5 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER). The program was quickly opened to the class of 2020. After the Longleaf Commitment’s initial success, the North Carolina General Assembly expanded eligibility to the high school class of 2022 by doubling the program’s budget – this time using the state’s funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The investment won’t just support students, but also the state’s community college system which had seen declining enrollment at the onset of COVID-19. It will also serve a growing demand for a skilled workforce.
The governor’s office says 2022 was a record-breaking year for job announcements including those from Toyota at the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, jet manufacturer Boom Supersonic in Guilford County, Macy’s in Rowan County, and semiconductor maker Wolfspeed in Chatham County.
“The Governor knew in order to fill our promises to these new companies coming, we're going to need a well-trained and diverse workforce,” says Dr. DeSantis.
More importantly, she says, is the opportunity for more North Carolinians to earn family-sustaining wages that may have been out of reach without credentials beyond a high school diploma.
Longleaf Commitment's Creation
The governor’s office partnered with the North Carolina Community College System, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, and the North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office to design and implement the Longleaf Commitment Grant program. One of its biggest features is its simplicity. Students filling out the Free Application For Student Aid, or FAFSA, were automatically considered based on their financial need and enrollment at an in-state community college. Students receive anywhere between $700 and $2,800 per semester to support a tuition-free associates degree or enough credits to transfer to a four-year institution.
This May, Perez will be among the first recipients to walk across the graduation stage at Forsyth Tech, which has been recognized for taking the program one step further. During a visit in 2022, Governor Cooper highlighted the college’s strategy to leverage Longleaf Commitment funds by combining them with other local scholarships and private dollars. This allowed Forsyth Tech to expand a debt-free education to all 2020, 2021, and 2022 high school graduates regardless of financial status, covering tuition, fees, and books.
As North Carolina emerges from the pandemic with an even brighter economic future, the Longleaf Commitment Grant helps ensure more students like Perez can learn, grow, and be ready to take part in the state’s success.
“Community college is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” says Perez. “It’s given me so many more opportunities.”