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How Fairfield University Ended Up With Few Low-Income Students

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FAIRFIELD, Conn. — Last night, the primary official basketball game at Fairfield University’s brand-new, 85,000-square-foot Leo D. Mahoney Arena took place. The constructing, which cost $51 million, takes pride of place in the middle of campus.

Across Loyola Drive, within the suite of admission and financial aid offices within the Aloysius P. Kelley Center, the varsity has hit a distinct form of milestone: The category of first-year students that entered in 2020 had the bottom percentage of Pell Grant recipients of any college in the US — 7.5 percent — in line with essentially the most recent federal data.

The federal government makes Pell Grants available to students from families with the bottom incomes within the country. So the figure has change into a proxy for a better education institution’s commitment to pulling students up from the bottom rungs of the social-class ladder.

Is the Pell Grant one of the best metric to guage this commitment? Fairfield, a Jesuit institution whose mission includes fostering “ethical and spiritual values and a way of social responsibility,” believes the measurement is “not particularly useful” or “modern.” The college refused to let administrators have an on-the-record conversation with me about it, but I did communicate by email with one vice chairman.

“Built upon the bedrock of a sustainable academic and economic model, we proceed to work to make Fairfield more accessible to as many students as possible,” Corry Unis, who has been the varsity’s vice chairman for strategic enrollment management since 2018, said in an email.

The words “sustainable” and “economic” do offer some clues as to how the varsity ended up with such a low Pell figure — and to how difficult and expensive it might be to reverse this at a university with 4,757 undergraduates.

The top quality of scholars was admitted to Fairfield in 1947. In university years, that’s fairly young. It is just too young, on this instance at the very least, to have enough graduates who’ve made and donated sufficient money to the varsity’s endowment to satisfy the total financial need of each student the varsity accepts.

Federal data tell a few of that story. Within the 2020-21 school yr, first-year, full-time Fairfield undergraduates whose families had incomes of $30,000 or less paid a median “net price” of $31,018. Up the road at Trinity College in Hartford, a college with a much higher endowment per student, that figure is $8,252. At Windfall College in Rhode Island, it’s $19,531.

How can families pay $31,038 to Fairfield once they earn not more than $30,000? The federal government defines “net price” on this instance as what families are chargeable for after Pell Grants are subtracted from a college’s list price (about $70,000 at Fairfield this yr, including room and board). Pell Grants amount to not more than $6,895 per student for the 2022-23 school yr and go most frequently to families with incomes under $60,000. Any state or local government scholarships are also subtracted from the list price, as are whatever additional grants a person school offers. A family or student covers the remaining net price with savings, income and loans.

James Murphy, a senior policy analyst on the advocacy group Education Reform Now, generates the Pell rankings every year and publishes the outcomes on the organization’s website. He dove a bit deeper into Fairfield’s first-year student numbers and located that its percentage of Pell recipients had dropped 44 percent over 4 years, to 7.5 percent in 2020-21 from 13.3 percent in 2016-17.

“How does that occur?” he asked. “Selections are being made. You’ve to assume it’s someone pretty high up the ladder.”

On the very starting of a speech in September, Fairfield’s president, Mark R. Nemec, practically beat his chest with pride. “We are actually the seventh most selective Catholic university,” he said. “To place this in historical perspective, with the scholars who arrived in the autumn of 2017, we placed fiftieth (five zero) amongst our Catholic peers.”

Schools like Fairfield often must offer discounts to above-average students in the shape of so-called merit aid to influence them to matriculate. These discounts may don’t have anything to do with financial need. In accordance with Fairfield’s most up-to-date data, from the 2020-21 school yr, it offered 89 percent of first-year, full-time students without financial need (who got here from families with household incomes often higher than $200,000) a median of $17,881 for his or her freshman yr.

In a news release about essentially the most recent first-year class, the varsity heralded the biggest applicant pool ever. The discharge didn’t give a figure for Pell Grant recipients, though it did note that “numbers of first-generation students and students representing diverse populations” increased from the previous yr.

President Nemec noted in his speech that “selectivity will not be an end for us.” But it might create a form of virtuous domino effect, and Fairfield is removed from alone in using increased selectivity as a tactic to spice up its standing and branding.

If all goes in line with the playbook, higher students will wish to be with higher students; rising selectivity will cause applications to extend without Fairfield having to spend ever more cash on recruiting; more people will probably be willing to pay the list price to live and study there; donations will rise; after which there will probably be more cash to recruit and support low-income students. It could work, but it surely would take a few years.

One other possibility, nevertheless, is stagnant or declining percentages of Pell Grant recipients; low-income applicants wondering whether or not they may get a greater deal elsewhere; and current students wondering how much the institution cares for people who find themselves historically underrepresented. Fairfield did itself no favors this yr when the administration ordered its mental-health counseling center to remove a “Black Lives Matter” banner from its window.

Eden Marchese, a senior who has worked within the admissions office and who’s the director of diversity and inclusion for the Fairfield University Student Association, was not surprised by the varsity’s low Pell figure. Mx. Marchese was quick to notice that there have been college employees doing incredible work. Still, Mx. Marchese would offer qualified advice to prospective students considering the varsity.

“If you must be a trailblazer, there’s a lot room for you to seek out yourself here,” Mx. Marchese said. “But there are also other places that could make you’re feeling safer and may make you’re feeling such as you belong there. The senses of belonging here for me have been so few and much between, and it’s heartbreaking.”

The college told me, via email, that it did measure “belonging” through “retention, success and student satisfaction and engagement surveys.” I asked to see the outcomes from Pell Grant recipients on satisfaction and engagement, but the varsity wouldn’t give them to me.

“As a first-generation Pell recipient and someone who identifies as coming from a various background, the university has been nothing but welcoming,” Mr. Unis, the enrollment vice chairman, said in an email.

Next yr, the varsity plans to open Fairfield Bellarmine, in nearby Bridgeport. There, as much as 100 “traditionally underrepresented” students will pursue two-year degrees in a program grounded within the liberal arts. Fairfield has a recent full-tuition scholarship program on the primary campus, too. It is a start.

Fairfield’s biggest challenge could also be financial. It could spend more to recruit higher numbers of lower-income students after which discount tuition enough for the education to be reasonably priced.

That would require budget cuts elsewhere, though, say from the dining hall or dorm remodeling. If you happen to try this enough, higher-income families who already subsidize tuition for lower-income students may never even apply.

Make no mistake, it is a business, and the alternatives Fairfield faces are just like ones that a whole bunch of other schools must make. College-shopping families and students could prioritize diversity over recent buildings and amenities in the event that they desired to, but schools worry that the majority of them — most of us — don’t and never will.

Wealthy alumni have selections to make, too. The lead gift on the brand new arena got here from Shelagh Mahoney-McNamee, who can be a board member. She didn’t reply to several messages looking for comment on how she allocates her giving or whether she had considered other philanthropic options except for the sector. She could consider them.

Fairfield has no shortage of individuals with expertise on Catholic teachings. Most of them didn’t reply to my inquiries concerning the godliness of a low Pell number. But Paul Lakeland, a professor and founding director of the varsity’s Center for Catholic Studies, was willing to weigh in.

He noted that the varsity “desperately” needed an arena of some sort. Then, he continued.

“You measure the common good of any community by the degree to which it prioritizes the needs of the least fortunate members,” he said. “A healthy community is one where the least fortunate are given the best attention.”

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