How Fairfield University Ended Up With Few Low-income Students

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — Last night the first official basketball game took place at the brand new 85,000 square foot Leo D. Mahoney Arena at Fairfield University. The building, which cost $51 million, occupies a prime location at the center of campus.

Across Loyola Drive, in the Aloysius P. Kelley Center Admissions and Financial Aid Offices Suite, the school hit a different milestone: the class of freshmen who entered 2020 had the lowest percentage of Pell Grant recipients of any college in the United States – 7.5% – according to the most recent federal data.

The federal government makes Pell grants available to students from the lowest income families in the country. Thus, the figure has become an indicator of a higher education institution’s commitment to pulling students from the lowest rungs of the social ladder.

Is the Pell Grant the best indicator for judging this commitment? Fairfield, a Jesuit institution whose mission includes promoting “ethical and religious values ​​and a sense of social responsibility”, says the measure is “not particularly useful” or “modern”. The school refused to let the administrators have a formal conversation with me about this, but I communicated via email with a vice president.

“Built on the foundation of a sustainable academic and economic model, we continue to work to make Fairfield more accessible to as many students as possible,” said Corry Unis, the school’s vice president for strategic student management. registrations since 2018, in an email.

The words “sustainable” and “economical” offer some clues as to how the school ended up with such a low Pell figure – and how difficult and expensive it can be to reverse that at a university with 4,757 undergraduate students.

The first class of students were admitted to Fairfield in 1947. In college years, it’s quite young. It is too young, at least in this case, to have enough graduates who have earned and donated enough money to the school’s endowment to meet all the financial needs of every student the school accepts.

Federal data tells part of this story. In the 2020-21 school year, full-time freshmen at Fairfield whose families had incomes of $30,000 or less paid an average “net price” of $31,018. Further afield, at Trinity College in Hartford, a school with a much higher endowment per student, that figure is $8,252. At Providence College in Rhode Island, it’s $19,531.

How can families pay Fairfield $31,038 when they don’t make more than $30,000? The government defines “net price” in this case as what families are responsible for after Pell Grants are subtracted from the going price of a school (about $70,000 at Fairfield this year, including room and board). Pell Grants do not exceed $6,895 per student for the 2022-23 school year and range most of the time families with incomes below $60,000. Any state or local government scholarships are also subtracted from the list price, as are any additional grants offered by an individual school. A family or student covers the remaining net price with savings, income and loans.

James Murphy, a senior policy analyst with advocacy group Education Reform Now, generates the Pell Rankings annually and publishes the results on the organization’s website. He dipped a little deeper into Fairfield’s freshman count and found its percentage of Pell recipients fell 44% over four years, to 7.5% in 2020-21 from 13.3% in 2016-17.

“How is it going?” He asked. “Choices are being made. You have to assume it’s someone pretty high up on the ladder.

At the very start of a speech in September, Fairfield President Mark R. Nemec practically beat his chest with pride. “We are now the seventh most selective Catholic university,” he said. “To put this in historical perspective, with the students who arrived in the fall of 2017, we ranked 50th (five zeros) among our Catholic peers.”

Schools like Fairfield often have to offer discounts to above-average students in the form of so-called merit aid to persuade them to enroll. These discounts may have nothing to do with financial need. According to Fairfield’s most recent data, as of the 2020-21 school year, it offered 89% of full-time freshmen without financial need (who came from families with generally higher household incomes). to $200,000) an average of $17,881 in their first year.

In a press release about the last freshman class, the school announced the largest pool of applicants ever. The statement did not give a figure for Pell Fellowship recipients, although it noted that “the number of first-generation students and students representing diverse populations” has increased from the previous year. .

President Nemec noted in his speech that “selectivity is not an end for us”. But it can create a sort of virtuous domino effect, and Fairfield is far from alone in using increased selectivity as a tactic to boost its reputation and brand image.

If everything goes according to the playbook, better students will want to be with better students; increasing selectivity will lead to more applications without Fairfield having to spend ever more money on recruiting; more people will be willing to pay the going price to live and study there; donations will increase; and then there will be more money to recruit and support low-income students. It might work, but it would take many years.

Another possibility, however, is stagnant or declining percentages of Pell grant recipients; low-income applicants wondering if they could get a better deal elsewhere; and current students wonder how much the institution cares about historically underrepresented people. Fairfield did itself a disservice this year when the administration ordered its mental health counseling center to remove a “Black Lives Matter” banner from its window.

Eden Marchese, a senior who worked in the admissions office and serves as director of diversity and inclusion for the Fairfield University Student Association, wasn’t surprised by Pell’s low number from the school. Mx. Marchese was quick to notice that there were college employees doing amazing work. However, Mx. Marchese would offer qualified advice to prospective students considering the school.

“If you want to be a trailblazer, you have so much room to hang out here,” Mx said. said Marchese. “But there are also other places that can make you feel safer and feel like you belong there. The feelings of belonging here for me have been so rare and it’s heartbreaking.

The school told me, via email, that it measures “belonging” through “retention, achievement, and student satisfaction and engagement surveys.” I asked to see the results of Pell Grant recipients on satisfaction and engagement, but the school wouldn’t give them to me.

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

Next year, the school plans to open Fairfield Bellarmine, near Bridgeport. There, up to 100 “traditionally underrepresented” students will pursue two-year degrees in a liberal arts-based curriculum. Fairfield also offers a new full-tuition scholarship program on the main campus. It’s a beginning.

Perhaps Fairfield’s biggest challenge is financial. It could spend more to enroll more low-income students and then reduce tuition enough to make education affordable.

This could require budget cuts elsewhere, for example in the dining room or the renovation of the dorms. If you do this enough, high-income families who already subsidize tuition for low-income students might never even apply.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a business, and the choices Fairfield faces are similar to those hundreds of other schools face. Families and college-shopping students could prioritize diversity over new buildings and amenities if they wanted to, but schools fear most of them — most of us — don’t and never will.

The former wealthy also have choices to make. The main giveaway on the new arena came from Shelagh Mahoney-McNamee, who is also a board member. She did not respond to several messages seeking comment on how she distributes her donations or whether she had considered other philanthropic options outside of the arena. She could consider them.

Fairfield has no shortage of people with expertise in Catholic teachings. Most of them didn’t answer my questions about the piety of a low Pell number. But Paul Lakeland, a teacher and founding director of the school’s Center for Catholic Studies, was ready to step in.

He noted that the school “desperately” needs an arena of some kind. Then he continued.

“You measure the common good of any community by the extent to which it prioritizes the needs of less fortunate members,” he said. “A healthy community is where the less fortunate receive the most attention.

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