FILE - University of North Carolina campus Old Well

The Old Well on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill

North Carolina lawmakers were asked to revise some of the restrictions on financial aid in the state.

State program auditors want legislators to increase the number of students eligible to receive the Education Lottery Scholarship, upgrade record-keeping on loan programs, issue more funding and create a strategic plan for the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority.

“The State Education Assistance Authority seeks to promote access and reduce costs for students, but challenges exist that prevent fully expending state appropriations for educational financial aid,” said Adora Thayer, an evaluator for the Program Evaluation Division.

North Carolina’s SEAA oversees the approval and disbursement of financial aid and loan forgiveness in the state. The Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee held a meeting Monday, where they heard a report on the agency’s deficiencies.

Last year, the committee directed the Program Evaluation Division to examine state-supported scholarships, grants and educational loan programs. The researchers found that the SEAA has limitations in granting financial aid, and a lapse in data collection made it hard for researchers to determine the effectiveness of the assistance programs. 

The average cost of a four-year degree in North Carolina is around $22,000, according to numbers.

From fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2018, 60 percent of the programs met their targets. About $850,000 to $2.6 million remained unspent from the programs during the four years. Unspent funds for community colleges averaged at $3.3 million.

Thayer said legislators can extend more aid to students by increasing the number of students who are eligible for the Education Lottery Scholarship.

Lawmakers should increase the maximum expected family contribution and the amount of aid that students can receive, she suggested.

The family contribution cap should be raised from from $5,000 to $6,000, and students should receive a maximum grant of $5,100 instead of $4,000. She also suggested that the General Assembly allocate another $700,000 in annual appropriations for the UNC Need-Based Grant program, which supplements prior aid for eligible students.

Gaps in data collection prevented evaluators from scoping the full weight of the state’s financial aid programs.

Evaluators recommended that lawmakers request a records overhaul of the SEAA to determine student progress and repayment status. There is also no reporting from private institutions, evaluators found.

With a new set of data in place, Thayer believes SEAA could develop and maintain a strategic plan for its performance goals. 

The SEAA will then have to report its findings to the two oversight committees by Jan. 1, 2021.

Members of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee will now deliberate over Thayer’s recommendations for legislation.

“It seems to me like that through this we are asking for more and more reporting and changes and things like that, but what are we actually getting in return?” Rep. John A. Fraley asked.

Thayer said the reports ensure best practices and also provide a flow of information to North Carolinians.

“When it comes to actual return on value, we don’t have a cost estimate on that,” she said.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for three years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.