How Fairfield University Ended Up With Fewer Low-Income Students
Fairfield, Connecticut — Last night, the first official basketball game took place in Fairfield University’s brand new, 85,000-square-foot Leo D. Mahoney Arena. The building, which cost $51 million, holds pride of place in the center of campus.
Across Loyola Drive, in the suite of admissions and financial aid offices in the Aloysius P. Kelly Center, the school has achieved a distinction: Lowest percentage of Pell Grant recipients in the class of 2020 entering first-year students was the highest of any college in the United States – 7.5 percent – according to the most recent federal statistics.
The federal government makes Pell grants available to students from the lowest income families in the country. So this figure has become a representative of the higher education institution’s commitment to pulling up students from the lowest rungs of the social-class ladder.
Is the Pell Grant the best measure of this commitment? Fairfield, a Jesuit institution whose mission includes promoting “moral and religious values and a sense of social responsibility”, believes the measure is “not particularly useful” or “modern”. The school refused to let administrators have an on-the-record conversation with me about this, but I did communicate with a vice president by email.
“Built on a sustainable educational and economic model, we continue to work to make Fairfield as accessible as possible to as many students as possible,” said Corey Younes, who has been the school’s vice president for strategic enrollment management since 2018 are, said in a statement. E-mail.
The words “sustainable” and “economical” provide some clues as to how the school ended up with such a low pell figure—and how difficult and costly it might be to reverse at a university with 4,757 undergraduates.
In 1947 the first class of students was admitted to Fairfield. In university years, it is quite young. It is too small, in this instance at least, to have enough graduates who have given and donated enough money to the school’s endowment to meet the full financial need of every student the school accepts.
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Federal data tells something of that story. In the 2020-21 school year, first-year, full-time Fairfield undergraduates whose families made $30,000 or less paid an average “net price” of $31,018. Across the street at Trinity College in Hartford, a school with a much higher endowment per student, that figure is $8,252. At Providence College of Rhode Island, it’s $19,531.
How can families pay Fairfield $31,038 when they make no more than $30,000? The government defines “net worth” in this instance as what families are responsible for after Pell Grants are subtracted from the school’s list price (about $70,000 at Fairfield this year, including room and board). Pell Grants for the 2022-23 school year do not exceed $6,895 per student and are often awarded to families with incomes below $60,000. Any state or local government scholarships are also subtracted from the list price, as are additional grants provided by an individual school. A family or student balance covers the net worth with savings, income and debt.
James Murphy, a senior policy analyst at the advocacy group Education Reform Now, prepares the Pell rankings each year and publishes the results on the organization’s website. They dug a little deeper into Fairfield’s first-year student numbers and found that the percentage of Pell recipients had dropped 44 percent over four years, from 13.3 percent in 2016-17 to 7.5 percent in 2020-21.
“How does that happen?” He asked. “Choices are being made. You have to admit it’s very high up the ladder.
In a speech early in September, Fairfield’s president, Mark R. Nemec practically thumped his chest with pride. “We are now the seventh most selective Catholic university,” he said. “To put this in historical perspective, with students coming in the fall of 2017, we placed 50th (five zero) among our Catholic peers.”
Schools such as Fairfield are often required to give exemptions to above-average students in the form of so-called merit assistance to persuade them to matriculate. These exemptions 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 percent of first-year full-time students without financial need (who typically come from families with household incomes over $200,000) for their $17,881 new year on average.
In a news release about the most recent freshman class, the school introduced its largest applicant pool ever. The release did not provide any figures for Pell Grant recipients, although it noted that “the number of first-generation students and students representing diverse populations” has increased from the previous year.
President Nemec said in his speech that “selectivity is not the end for us.” But it can create a sort of virtuous domino effect, and Fairfield isn’t alone in using increased selectivity as a strategy to boost its standing and branding.
If everything goes according to the playbook, the better students will want to be with the better students; The increased selectivity will increase applications without Fairfield spending more money on recruiting; More people would be willing to pay list price to live and study there; charity will increase; And then there would be more money to recruit and support low-income students. It could work, but it would take years.
Another possibility, however, is a stable or declining percentage of Pell Grant recipients; Low-income applicants wondering if they can get a better deal elsewhere; And current students are wondering how much the institution cares for historically underrepresented people. Fairfield did itself no favors this year when the administration ordered its mental-health counseling center to remove the “Black Lives Matter” banner from its window.
Eden Marquez, a senior who works in the admissions office and director of diversity and inclusion for the Fairfield University Student Association, was not surprised by the school’s less pale figure. MX. Marches was quick to note that the college staff was doing an incredible job. Still, MX. Marchese will provide qualified advice to potential students considering the school.
“If you want to pioneer, there’s plenty of room for you to explore,” Mx. Marches said. “But there are other places that can make you feel safe and make you feel like you belong there. For me the sense of belonging here has been few and far between, and it’s heartbreaking.
The school told me via email that it measured “belonging” through “retention, success, and student satisfaction and engagement surveys.” I asked to see results on satisfaction and engagement from Pell Grant recipients, but the school did not provide 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,” Mr. Younis, the enrollment vice president, said in an email.
Next year, the school plans to open Fairfield Bellarmine in nearby Bridgeport. There, up to 100 “traditionally underrepresented” students will pursue a two-year degree in a program based on the liberal arts. Fairfield also has a new full-tuition scholarship program on the main campus. it’s a start.
Fairfield’s biggest challenge may be financial. It could spend more to enroll a greater number of low-income students and then offer enough discounts to make education affordable.
However, budget cuts may be needed elsewhere, say with dining hall or dorm remodeling. If you do this enough, high-income families that already subsidize tuition for low-income students may never apply.
Make no mistake, this is a business, and the choices Fairfield faces are ones hundreds of other schools must make. College-buying families and students may want to prioritize diversity over new buildings and facilities, but schools worry that most of them — most of us — don’t and never will.
Wealthy alumni have options too. The main gift on the new arena came from Shelagh Mahony-McNamee, who is also a board member. She did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment on how she allocates her giving or whether she has considered other philanthropic options aside from the arena. She could consider them.
There is no shortage of people in Fairfield who specialize in Catholic teachings. Most of them didn’t respond to my inquiries about the godliness of the low pell number. But Paul Lackland, a professor and founding director of the school’s Center for Catholic Studies, wanted to weigh in.
He said the school “desperately” needed some sort of field. 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 most attention.”