Thursday, October 22, 2009

Helping students go the distance

David Dunn calls it a "perfect storm" in academia, a converging crisis that could prevent many students at UNC Charlotte from returning to school in the spring.

As UNCC's vice chancellor for university relations and community affairs, Dunn is the go-to guy when it comes to lobbying state legislators on the university's behalf. He also heads up the school's outreach.

In September, after fall classes had already begun, the legislature did a number on the UNC System's 16 campuses, significantly slashing state funding for need-based financial aid – taking effect in the spring semester.

That means $1.5 million less in need-based assistance for UNCC. At the same time, 40percent more students applied for financial aid because many families are cash-strapped in the recession. That's on top of about 15,000 UNCC students already getting some level of aid.

"Even with the increase, we were able to provide the level of need-based funding for the fall semester," Dunn said. "But come spring, we're going to need to find ways to replenish $1.5 million, or a lot of kids are either going to be leaving school, or borrowing will go up significantly, or they'll take second and third jobs – or fewer courses."

One way is Saturday's first 4.NinerK run/walk, organized specifically to raise money for need-based scholarships.

Dunn's community affairs department came up with the idea and reached out to 40,000 alumni, 3,000 faculty and staff members and 24,500 students. As of last Wednesday, more than 530 people had signed up to run.

Organizers set a goal of raising at least $25,000, every dime going to scholarships.

"There is virtually no way we're going to make up a huge deficit of $1.5 million," Dunn said. "But this is real money that will help a lot of kids stay in school."

The event sends a statement.

"It tells students that the administration understands this crisis and we want to be proactive to alleviate the financial problems around that," Dunn said. "We want to help."

Devlin Horton plans to partake. He's a senior at UNCC, and couldn't have made it this far without need-based assistance.

His needs were substantial when he left his native Greenville, N.C., to enroll at UNCC as a freshman four years ago. When he was 15, his father had suffered a heart attack and doctors told him that continuing to work would kill him. Devlin had to work and go to school to keep the family going.

He couldn't play baseball, and had to forgo his prom because he couldn't afford to rent a tux. Just before he started college, his parents filed for bankruptcy.

"I always took it for granted that I was going to go to college and that it would be paid for," Horton said. "I arrived in Charlotte not knowing how I was going to pay for school."

Initially, an aunt co-signed a student loan, and then he started applying for financial aid. "I wouldn't have made it through college if financial aid hadn't been available to me," he said.

Since his freshman year, he has worked a paid internship in the legal profession, and held a leadership position on student government's judicial board. Now he's in the midst of applying to law schools.

He's also president of his fraternity.

Horton's set for next semester and will graduate in May. But there are plenty of Devlin Hortons still on campus who need financial help. You can help 'em out Saturday at the 4.NinerK.

But, in full disclosure, the course is a whole 5K.

Want to go? You can still take part in UNC Charlotte's first annual 4.NinerK run/walk and help raise money for need-based financial aid scholarships. Register at, clicking on the race logo, or just show up Saturday and register at UNCC's newly opened student union. Check-in and on-site registration begins at 7:30 a.m. Registration fees: $26 for individuals and $49 for a family of four. The Web site has directions, a map of the course and times.