With a little help from my friends
Mary Ellen Woods | Monday, January 24, 2022
With the recent batch of Notre Dame early admits, I am reminded of conversations about the Class of 2025 — the most diverse of any admitted to Our Lady’s University, until, presumably, the Class of 2026. Friends, cherished alums themselves, decried the demographics of last year’s enrolled class, suggesting that they diminished the value of our diplomas, their children’s accomplishments and lowered the standards for acceptance to ND. I saw the increase in first-generation, lower socioeconomic status (SES) and people of color as needed and overdue efforts to make Notre Dame more reflective of society. And, the class represents our duty and obligation to be a “force for good in the world.”
However, admitting this wonderful and diverse class of students is only the beginning. Our obligation extends to their journey through Notre Dame. ND is justifiably proud of our accomplishments in the classroom. We are understandably pleased with our standings on national lists. We even have recognized the need to increase the economic diversity of our student population as the US News ranking now includes Pell Grant eligibility as a factor. We need to remember that among the various measures US News uses, first-year retention and graduation rates are also considerations. ND is especially strong on these statistics. The perennial leader, Notre Dame, graduated 93% of undergraduates in four years in 2018 (the last year available from US News). Here are the four-year statistics for some peer institutions: UChicago, 91%; Princeton, 90%; Harvard, 86%; Yale, 84% and Stanford, 74%. First-year retention is a measure of equal importance. ND is 6th at 98%. Our peers are strong with UChicago, 99%; Princeton, 94%; Harvard, 92%; Yale, 91% and Stanford, 96%.
To sustain this leadership position, ND cannot take academic success for granted. This is especially true after a long pandemic year. Sociologists know that not all students have equal measures of experience or gifts — social capital, as it is called. Research tells us that those with higher measures of social capital do better at educational attainment than students without. We also know that first-gen and lower SES students tend to have different social capital that doesn’t tend to find currency in institutions of higher education. As a result, these students may be less adept at advocating for themselves. So, if ND is to continue to ensure that her chosen students stick it out through and beyond their first year and graduate on time, we have work to do. Are we willing to make the effort and investment needed to be sure that all are successful?
ND has taken a needed first step in the creation of the Office of Student Enrichment (OSE). It looks after the financial health and well-being of students — helping them navigate a place that is very expensive and where social expectations can strain one’s “out of pocket” resources. OSE has been in place for a number of years and offers great programming, so we are grateful for that.
But what about the academic challenges that face students who have no experience with college? I was pleased to see Fr. Jenkins announce the Transformational Leadership Program (TLP) recently. TLP will offer advising, research placements, internships, pre-matriculation programming, mentoring and other resources for students from low-resource backgrounds. I am more than happy to see this announcement and hope that it is the start of a true commitment to the academic and life success of all our Lady’s students.
These measures are important for another reason: the stewardship of our endowment commands that we do everything reasonable to ensure that we invest our money wisely. Our commitment to students new to the college experience must be made with the same rigor and high expectations of any other investment ND makes — but imagine the return when that first-gen student not only graduates from ND but goes on to be a doctor, a Ph.D. candidate or even be the first in her family to travel abroad to see the world. Our commandment is not limited to the administration and faculty of Our Lady’s University. We hold all our students to the highest expectations. Each student must take the greatest advantage of all that ND has to offer — in the classroom, in the dorm, the lab, the halls of the Main Building and even down to that last pesky email that is all too easy to overlook. I know that ND’s Admissions team has every confidence that our admitted students can and will succeed here, now let’s make that happen and sustain our track record of excellent retention and four-year graduation rates.
Mary Ellen Woods is a graduate of the Notre Dame class of 1980. She has returned to campus as a Fellow in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI). As an undergraduate, she lived in Breen-Phillips and now lives off campus. Her columns appear every other Thursday. A longtime resident of Chicago, she can be reached at [email protected] or @MEWsmuses on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.