Ericka Aiken will graduate from NC State without the crushing debt that burdens many college grads.

Promising Future

May 3, 2010

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Decisions, decisions. Graduating senior Ericka Aiken has options. Maybe too many options. The bright political science major shuffles through a stack of acceptance letters from some pretty impressive law schools.

There’s one from Duke, which sweetens the deal with a guarantee of $18,000 a year in financial aid. Georgetown tops that, promising $35,000 a year. The University of Miami isn’t as prestigious, but makes up for it by offering Aiken a full ride. Cornell, Emory and Seton Hall join the bidding war, each making a pitch for the gifted undergraduate.

“I’m torn between Georgetown and Duke,” she confesses. “But if Harvard calls, I’ll drop everything else and go straight there.” (She’s on the waiting list.)

Weighing the Options

Options are a relatively new experience for Aiken, who was raised in modest circumstances and spent her early years in a single-parent home.

“My mom always said, ‘We can’t afford college. If you want to go, you’ll have to be a superstar and get a scholarship.’”

Aiken got a few scholarships, but the thing that really eased the financial pressure was NC State’s Pack Promise program, which enabled her to graduate in four years without a dime of debt.

The program, administered by the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, guarantees qualifying low-income students 100 percent of their financial aid requirements through a combination of scholarships, grants, federal work-study employment and need-based loans.

Luckily, the program was launched the same year Aiken applied at NC State. This month the first class of 85 Pack Promise scholars – including Aiken – will pick-up their diplomas in a ceremony at the RBC Center.

Ready for a Career

Not all Pack Promise recipients are pursuing advanced degrees. Some, like biomedical engineering major Mike Williams, are moving directly into a job, or at least a job search.

Williams, who grew up in Clemmons, N.C., a suburb of Winston-Salem, is looking for an R&D position in the medical device industry. Thanks to Pack Promise, he graduates with just $1,500 in loans to repay.

On top of that, he leaves NC State prepared to excel in a competitive and growing industry. He’s not worried about the tight job market.

“In high school I was captain of the math academic team and captain of the varsity football team,” he says. “I was a mathlete. Take all the subjects I love – math, physics and biology – and put them together and you have biomedical engineering.”

As he interviews for jobs and works his contacts in the biomedical industry, Williams reflects on his good fortune, especially in shaky economic times.

“Pack Promise allowed me to focus on my studies and get done in four years without the burden of thousands of dollars in debt,” he says. “I didn’t even know the program existed until I got the letter. But without Pack Promise, going to college would have been tough. Really tough.”