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University lags in low-income study

Eileen Duffy | Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Out of the 59 wealthiest private institutions, The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked Notre Dame 49th in its ability to enroll low-income students.

But that low ranking might not accurately portray the University, said administrators who criticized the method researchers used to create the 2004-05 report, which examined institutions with endowments of $500 million or more.

The publication used the number of students holding Federal Pell Grants – which, unlike government loans, do not need to be paid back – as an indicator.

In the study, Notre Dame’s 9.7 percent of students holding Pell Grants lagged far behind Berea College in Kentucky, the No. 1 school, where 80.8 percent of students reportedly receive those loans.

Berea College’s unique admissions policy only accepts students that “fall below a certain income,” said Luke Hodson, assistant director of admissions at Berea. But other academically elite colleges – Smith College (25.9 percent), Columbia (16 percent) and Stanford (13 percent), as well as peer schools like Georgetown (10.4 percent) and Boston College (10.3 percent) outranked Notre Dame.

Director of Financial Aid Joe Russo noted that Notre Dame is still “pretty close to its peers.”

But Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, thinks the University can do better.

Mortenson has published extensively on low-income students in post-secondary education. In a December 2005 study, which also used the percentage of students holding Pell Grants as an indicator, he ranked the most class-exclusive universities of the 696 private four-year institutions in the United States.

Notre Dame was the 19th most exclusive.

“For a Catholic school, I thought that was appalling,” said Mortenson, mentioning the Catholic mission of reaching out to all members of the community.

But according to Russo and Assistant Provost for Admissions Dan Saracino, a study that only measures the number of Pell Grant recipients a University enrolls is “very simplistic.”

“It disappoints me that a ranking would be done in this manner,” Saracino said.

Rather, Notre Dame measures its socioeconomic diversity in the number of students who are on financial aid (80 percent) and the number of students who graduate holding Pell Grants, Saracino said.

Because, as Saracino pointed out, enrolling students is one thing – retaining them is another. Notre Dame’s overall retention rate of 95 percent places the University in the top three of all institutes of higher learning.

“To admit [underprivileged students], but not help them persist, is itself access denied,” Saracino said. “It’s easy to use the federal government to give the student a Pell Grant, then wash your hands of any moral responsibility to help them graduate.”

The ranking also doesn’t take into account the commitment the institution is making out of its own pocket, Saracino said – like the estimated $68 million Notre Dame awarded this year in University scholarship assistance.

Notre Dame evaluates applicants on a need-blind basis – meaning ability to pay does not factor into acceptance. While this is a “longstanding tradition the University is very proud of,” Russo said, he did mention that the Office of Financial Aid does not create such policies – that job belongs to the Board of Trustees.

Once Notre Dame accepts a student, it pledges to meet the full, demonstrated financial aid, Russo said. The University is one of less than a dozen colleges that do that.

“We can look a student in the eye … and say, your ability to pay will play no role at all in your admission,” Saracino said. “If you deserve to be admitted, we will admit you. And then, we will meet your full need.

“Those two things together are very powerful as we reach out to students who could not afford it.”

But Notre Dame’s incoming classes, Mortenson insisted, are “absolutely unrepresentative of the population of the U.S.” Mortenson’s answer for increasing socioeconomic diversity at the University was quite simply the opposite of Notre Dame’s policies.

“How about being need-sensitive?” he asked. “Go seek out the poorer, underprivileged students.”

Need-sensitive admission is “nothing Notre Dame would be proud to espouse or adopt,” Saracino said. Such policies at other universities have created bad situations, where the institution ends up refusing a student who cannot afford tuition because the institution has maxed out its yearly funds, he said.

Notre Dame does seek out and encourage underprivileged students to apply, though. University representatives have targeted high schools with a high number of ethnic minorities – “and/or students on the free lunch program,” Saracino said. The Notre Dame Club of Chicago has also initiated a program to match an alumnus to each of a group of Chicago public high schools to “adopt that school and reach out to those students,” he said.

“We are trying to increase ethnic diversity as well as those students who would be, obviously, first-generation college attendees – and the likelihood, too would be that they would be extremely poor,” he said.

And the need-blind policy, he said, still leaves the Admission Office’s eyes open to certain factors.

“If we see [on applications] students coming from the Chicago Public School system, we … we don’t know for certain, but we can assume students from those schools will be poorer than students from a suburb like Oak Park or Evanston,” he said.

Notre Dame isn’t blind to its legacy students, though – a policy Mortenson took issue with.

“You have to try hard to avoid poor people, to have so few Pell Grant recipients on campus,” he said. “Whereas, what is [the average percentage of legacies], 25 percent? I think Notre Dame’s an odd school.”

In fact, children of alumni make up 24 percent of the class of 2010, the highest percentage of any university in the nation. But, Russo said, Notre Dame is “proud of such a commitment” to the children of alumni.

“They bring academic credentials, a strong desire to be at Notre Dame, Catholicity and a commitment to public service,” he said, and Saracino noted the academic profile of a legacy student is “virtually the same” as the overall student.

Nor can the benevolence of alumni be ignored.

Notre Dame’s endowment, including alumni donations – along with other monetary sources like bookstore revenue and the funds from the football TV contract with NBC – is what subsidizes tuition to make it affordable for the average student, on top of providing financial aid, Saracino said.

“You do need the generosity of alumni and benefactors to help keep costs down, and provide financial aid for those that can’t afford that,” Saracino said.

Saracino and Russo also felt it was more important to evaluate an institution’s overall commitment to the community.

Notre Dame has a “culture of service,” Saracino said. More than 90 percent of incoming freshmen were involved in community service during high school, he said; more than 80 percent of Notre Dame students are involved in it during their four years; and 15 percent of Notre Dame graduates go immediately into public service after graduation (five percent of those being ROTC students).

“There is no reason to apologize for what’s going on at Notre Dame,” he said.

When asked if the University would like to place more highly in the aforementioned ranking of Pell Grant-holding students, Russo didn’t hesitate.

“Of course. Are we committed to diversity? Yes. The highest level of diversity,” he said. “But can we be better? Of course. We’re trying.”

That, Mortenson said, will require the University to take action.

“If Notre Dame retains its current admissions policies,” he said, “its ranking won’t change.”