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Student, administrators reflect on Notre Dame’s financial accessibility

| Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series exploring the experiences of low socioeconomic students at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s.

When sophomore Eric Kim was ranking colleges for his QuestBridge application, he added Notre Dame because he applied to “any school that had a business program.”

It wasn’t until after he was matched with the University that he began to understand the campus culture.

“When I applied, it didn’t hit that this was a Catholic institution; it didn’t hit that we are financially wealthy; it didn’t hit that this was a white-dominated university,” he said. “I lived in an area that was 50 percent Asian, so it was a culture shock coming here. It is a culture shock for many people who live in California who are low-income, minority and low socio-economic status.”

As the QuestBridge liaison for the Quest Chapter of Notre Dame, Kim works with many low-income students who might be having similar experiences and helps them find resources on campus.

The Office of Student Enrichment

One resource Kim said he and his executive board “push as available” is the Office of Student Enrichment.

The office’s assistant director, Consuela Wilson, said they were created almost three years ago to “formalize” what used to be called the Rector Fund and provide financial resources and programming to first-generation and low-income students.

“As the need [for resources] grew, more people were trying to tap into the Rector Fund,” she said. “It seemed to need more than that one person in Student Affairs. But also, having an office such as this is a direction that more and more schools are moving into: having dedicated personnel in resources and programming for first-generation or low-income students.”

Wilson said there are two main funds available: the Experience Fund, which is used for club dues, seminars, retreats, football tickets and the like; and the Opportunity Fund, which assists with funds for laptops, winter clothing, professional attire and travel for emergency purposes.

There are also programs to help bring parents and families to campus for both Junior Parents’ Weekend and Commencement.

“We don’t want a lack of funding to keep a student from having the type of experience they would like to have here,” Wilson said.

While rectors have remained an important reference point even after the change in name, Wilson said “word of mouth has been really crucial” to informing students of the resources available.

“Word of mouth, especially here at Notre Dame, goes really, really quickly,” she said. “We’ve utilized some of the different classes — the junior class, the senior class — to get the word out about the assistance programs for JPW and Commencement. Often the clubs will know, so if there are members of a club who are having trouble paying their dues, often those treasurers will know and will make them aware of that.”

Income disparity

Kim said he personally believes Notre Dame generally does a “good job” and that he has been “appreciative” of the efforts in the Office of Admissions to recruit more low-income students, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas to improve.

“I really am thankful being here at Notre Dame,” he said. “I’m really thankful for financial aid, really thankful for admissions counselors who have reached out to me, who have helped me through this whole process, my friends here, the professors here — everyone at this University I’m really thankful for. But of course, no matter what school you go to, there will be flaws to look into. So it’s a matter of us taking action towards it.”

Describing his home in southern California, Kim said he didn’t “really face much income disparity.”

“Coming here, you do see some divide between income disparities,” he said. “Not that students flaunt their wealth, but you see that these students are privileged and sometimes they don’t understand people of low socioeconomic status and their struggles, and they don’t need to understand that.

“It’s one thing that is kind of controversial, I would say: How much help can we get without being stigmatized?”

Kim tried to study abroad in Spain during the summer but, as financial aid does not transfer to the summer, he was unable to do so.

“I had this encounter with a person who asked me if I’m studying abroad,” he said. “And I said, ‘No, I can’t afford it.’ And she was saying, ‘But, there’s this scholarship, the SLA grant.’ And I said, ‘That’s only $5,500 of the $9,000 dollars you have to pay.’ And she said, ‘That’s still $5,500.’ And I’m like, ‘Even $1,000, itself, I can’t afford.’”

Minor comments can make it clear students are “oblivious” to the experiences of some of their classmates, Kim said.

“If you’re not living that lifestyle, you don’t need to know,” he said. “You don’t want to know.”

Looking forward

Don Bishop, associate vice president of undergraduate enrollment, has spent the last few years looking at how to recruit and admit more students from low-income backgrounds, raising the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at Notre Dame from 8 percent to 11 percent between 2001 and 2014.

Notre Dame is not the only school making the push to enroll more low-income students. Thirty elite colleges — including Princeton, Vanderbilt and the University of Michigan — banded together over a year ago with the goal of enrolling an additional 50,000 low- and moderate-income students at top institutions by 2025.

“Our goal is to not only keep the students that we have, we want to grow in the number of low income just like a fair number of our peers are doing right now,” Bishop said. “ … We’re seeing the Princetons and some of the others, most of them are at between 15 and 20 some-odd percent Pell. So, when can Notre Dame get there, and why isn’t Notre Dame there now?

“I do think that that assurance campaign that Stanford or Northwestern [has], Notre Dame needs to develop that and that’s in front of us. We haven’t accomplished that yet. And part of it, we were trying to see how much we could raise in fundraising, so that if we’re going to do an assurance program, can we fund it?”

When the Office of Student Enrichment was created, they really wanted to “formalize the financial assistance part first,” Wilson said. Looking forward, though, she said more focus is being put on creating programming opportunities beyond the leadership development and budgeting workshops they currently offer.

“Programming is — and will be — a really big part of what we feel like we are are charged to do in helping students with [culture shock],” she said. “Not just preparing, but giving them a space to talk about that with people who may understand or may have that shared experience.”

Expanding the financial resources available is also in the talks, Wilson said.

“Right now, we don’t assist with anything that would be over the summer. We only assist with asks that are during the year,” she said. “ … I think it’s because we needed to wait and see how our funding stretched for these first couple of years with students for that academic year, before we made that jump. So, that’s something we’re in the talks about. That’s one thing that I can see will be a challenge of ours. Not to say that it’s not doable, but it’s a challenge of ours.”

Access to financial and social resources on campus is taken into consideration before students are even on campus. Bishop said the hardest part of his job was figuring out how to strike the right balance when deciding which students who might be more of a “risk” should be admitted.

“Part of my responsibility as a University administrator in charge of enrollment and admissions is, do I put them in that situation or not?” he said. “Where’s the ethical line for Notre Dame to put a student into a level of opportunity or to sit there and say, ‘Are we exploiting this student?’ Where it feels good to put them in our statistics, but how do they feel about being here? We have to be honorable about that, and caring.”

Kim said he’s not sure how much the University will — or even can — stand up to “what is going on in our culture.”

“It’s also hard for us to make any changes because no one wants to talk about it,” he said. “And because no one wants to talk about it, it’s hard to find anything to change, when no one knows what there’s to change. So that’s why I’m trying to voice my opinions. Because who will?”

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About Megan Valley

Megan Valley was Assistant Managing Editor for The Observer. She majored in English and the Program of Liberal Studies and hailed from Flushing, Michigan.

Contact Megan