When Shirley Ort ’68 graduated from her rural, Hillsdale County high school, she didn’t consider herself to be “college material.” She was surprised, therefore, when her high school principal, Mr. Harper, requested that she take a weekend off from her summer job to speak with him about applying to college. To their meeting, Mr. Harper brought a single college application: he wanted her to apply to Spring Arbor College (SAC). Ort was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to afford a college education, yet Mr. Harper insisted, “If they let you in, they’ll help you find a way to stay.”
Mr. Harper’s promise became Ort’s reality, as she was accepted to SAC and hired as a resident assistant — a position that she would hold for all four years of her education at SAC. “I know, in retrospect, it’s what they did to make it possible for me to attend,” says Ort. “I’ll be forever grateful to my high school principal for seeing a future for me that I didn’t see for myself.”
Ort’s first experience with higher education set the tone for her entire career. As director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, Ort developed what came to be known as the “Carolina Covenant.” The Covenant, which took effect in 2004, allows low-income students to attend UNC via a work-study arrangement. “It is a pledge to the public that, if you get admitted to Carolina… we’ll provide a way for you to graduate debt-free,” says Ort.
Since its inception, the Covenant has benefited over 7,000 students and significantly increased the four-year graduation rate of low-income students at UNC. In a sense, the Covenant is Ort’s way of giving to other students what Mr. Harper gave to her: a chance to continue their education without disadvantaging themselves financially. “We needed to overcome that fear that higher education was only for those who could pay for it,” says Ort.