Legacies old and new: Notre Dame admissions documents increasing diversity, access for all types of students
Editor’s Note: The Observer spoke with associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment Don Bishop to gain insight into the increasingly competitive Notre Dame admissions process. This article is the second in a series analyzing different trends and development in admissions.
Between 2004 and 2009, an average of only 78 students in the Notre Dame first-year class were Black. Now, that number is a record 174 Black students in the incoming class of 2026. This pattern holds true for many minority groups.
Breaking diversity records
In the last 18 years, Notre Dame has steadily admitted more students of color — culminating in the most diverse class yet admitted this March.
“From 2014, we had 520 US students of color in the first-year class. In 2017, we had 651. That’s real change,” Bishop said.
Part of this shift arrives as the U.S. and the pool of high school students attending college grows more diverse. In 2000, 11.8% of high school graduates were Black and 10.4% were Hispanic. In 2020, those numbers had risen to 12.9% and 22.8% respectively, according to CIRP freshman survey data conducted at UCLA.
“America is getting more diverse,” Bishop said. “We want the leaders of all communities to come to Notre Dame and use that Notre Dame training to go back and lead the country but also go back and lead their communities.”
Bishop said that diversity is much more than a check-in-the-box for the admissions department.
“Nobody gets credit for just being something,” he said. “It’s ‘Do you show a diversity point of view? Do you have something that you’re going to bring with you, rather than just checking the box?’”
Bishop said efforts to recruit a more diverse class of students have strengthened at Notre Dame and peer institutions in the last two decades.
“All the schools felt that they had not worked hard enough to encourage the diversity,” he said. “We want leaders in all the neighborhoods, all the communities in the United States and beyond the United States. It’s just a bigger game than it ever was before, and you’ve got to be ready to play it. I think it’s going to require more resources, more recruitment, more staffing.”
As of 2020, Notre Dame’s percentage of undergraduate students who identify as solely Black or African American ranks in the bottom quartile of Association of American Universities (AAU) private universities, according to a Board of Trustees’ report on diversity and inclusion. The report said 3.4% of undergraduates self-identified as solely Black or African American. When taking into consideration those who identify as Black in addition to one or more other races, only 6.6% of the undergraduate student body was Black or African American.
Efforts to recruit students from as many backgrounds as possible remain ongoing in admissions departments across the country, Bishop said.
In the future, Bishop said there will be “a challenge to do more Hispanic recruitment” as the Hispanic population in the U.S. rapidly increased over the last decade.
In addition to racially diverse students, the number of international students enrolling in the first-year class has also increased in the past 18 years from 67 to 147, according to Notre Dame’s Common Data Set.
Still, Bishop said there are no quotas in the admissions department, other than for gender due to the University’s housing availability.
“We do have to have a certain gender balance because of the housing, so we’re supposed to be 47.5% female and 52.5% male. That’s the only number we have to hit based upon something defined in your application — whether you’re male or female,” he said.
Financial aid trends improve accessibility as costs increase
Along with a more racially diverse class, Notre Dame’s financial aid has also increased — resulting in greater access for low income students. While Notre Dame has grown more expensive, the amount of aid offered as a percentage of total costs has increased since 2004.
In 2021, about 57% of Notre Dame students receive some form of University scholarship funding when including funding such as club scholarships, athletic grants in aid, faculty-staff tuition benefits and merit awards.
At the same time, even after adjusting for inflation, tuition has increased substantially in the past four decades. In 1980, tuition, fees and room and board amounted to $6,542. Adjusted for inflation, that total would come to only $23,641 today, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index data. That compares to an actual 2021 cost of attendance of $75,147.
A decade ago, Notre Dame was averaging 140 first generation students in a first-year class. By comparison, Bishop said the number will be around 270 for the incoming first-years.
“We’ve almost doubled the number of first generation students in probably a 7 or 8 year period,” Bishop said.
The number of Pell Grant recipients at the University — those who demonstrate substantial financial need and qualify for federal higher education subsidies — has also increased in recent years, jumping from 208 students in 2018 to 300 students last year.
Bishop said Notre Dame was one of the first 10 members of QuestBridge — a nonprofit that connects low income, first generation college students with competitive universities — and is currently the third largest participant after Princeton University and the University of Chicago.
“We have 86 scholars coming. We had 89 last year, and we’re very proud of that,” Bishop said.
Taken together, first generation, QuestBridge and Pell Grant recipient student increases show an overall increase in students from less privileged backgrounds.
Bishop said he hopes this trend will continue.
“More and more low income students need to be encouraged to apply, and then you need to provide a supportive environment around them,” he said. “We want them to feel that we’re investing in them, not just helping them out.”
To accomplish this goal over the last few years, Bishop said the admissions team traveled more strategically and built partnerships with organizations designed to help low income students navigate the college admissions process, like Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and the Cristo Rey Network.
Even as tuition has increased, Bishop said financial aid offerings have beat price increases as students qualify for more aid and Notre Dame expands its reach. The University’s per student revenue, on the other hand, has matched or slightly outpaced aid per student.
Bishop said the University’s lucrative endowment fund is an integral part of meeting financial needs and doing more for low income students.
“We’re the seventh largest private University endowment. People expect that we’re going to use that part of that endowment to provide more aid. And they’re right. And we are,” he said. “It would be difficult to explain to America how you could be sitting on that type of money and not try to do more with it.”
Legacy admissions: Balancing loyalty with access
With a wide and loyal alumni network, Notre Dame historically has had a high percentage of alumni children attend the University. Bishop estimated that between 19% and 25% of each class consists of alumni children, varying year to year. He expects about 18% to 19% of the incoming first-year class to be legacy admits.
Compared to other selective private institutions, Notre Dame’s proportion of alumni students outweighs its peers. Ivy League schools average about 11.5% of alumni children per each class, while the top-20 non-Ivy League private universities average 7.5%, Bishop said.
He attributed the high rate of legacy students at Notre Dame to the family-oriented and Catholic nature of the University.
“We are more likely to be married and we have more children. We’re just more family-oriented, and again, that’s the nature of Notre Dame,” Bishop said.
According to a database created by the Equality of Opportunity Project, 68% of Notre Dame graduates are married by their mid-40s, as opposed to 56% of graduates from the other top 20 private universities. As of 2019, Notre Dame alumni averaged between 3.3 and 3.5 children per household, compared to the national average of 1.9 children per household at the time.
Bishop said the large number of alumni children enrolled is not due to favoritism in the admissions process, but rather because of the large amount applying and their often strong desire to attend the University.
About 75% of legacy children admitted enroll while Bishop estimated about the yield rate of all other admitted students to be around 50%.
“[Alumni children] are almost 50% more likely to pick Notre Dame. It’s because they grew up with Notre Dame,” Bishop said. “A lot of alumni children turned down the top 10 schools to come to Notre Dame because in their minds Notre Dame is not eighth or sixth or 13th, Notre Dame is number one.”
As legacy admissions have come under criticism recently — Amherst College ended legacy admission preference in 2021 — Bishop dismissed the notion that the admissions process favors alumni children.
“The average alumni child at Notre Dame has exactly the same median GPA as the entire class. So are the alumni children less qualified to be here? It would appear not,” he said.
The proportion of alumni children who receive the University’s top awards is greater than their overall class proportion, Bishop added.
In a 2014 Notre Dame Magazine article, Bishop said Notre Dame historically aims to maintain a legacy presence of 20 to 25% of legacy students in the student body. However, Bishop said the admissions office does not sacrifice access for other students to the University because of loyalty to alumni.
“Notre Dame will always balance our sensitivity and thoughtfulness of the loyalty of our alumni with a sense of fairness and enthusiasm for providing more access to families that want to start their family tradition at Notre Dame,” he said.
Bishop, a Notre Dame graduate, said denying alumni children admission is difficult for him.
“It’s hard. It’s emotionally very hard for our alumni. It’s the worst part of my job,” he said. “At the same point, I think the majority of Notre Dame alumni support the University in broadening its mission, broadening its outreach. It’s something we need to do.”
Maintaining the Catholic identity while increasing diversity
Bishop said Notre Dame remains 80% Catholic and intends to stay that way while increasing diversity.
“If we lose our identity as a Catholic school, then we’re just kind of ranked with everybody else,” Bishop said. “Notre Dame’s sense of balance is that we’re the leading Catholic University of the world and that we have a responsibility to maintain that benefit to all students who come here — Catholic or non Catholic.”
While Bishop said the University intends to maintain its Catholic identity, he said the admissions department places a greater focus on attracting top students who want to work on their faith, sense of self and goodness. Bishop hypothesized that increasing diversity will attract more top Catholic students.
“Notre Dame and Catholicism are supposed to be very open and welcoming,” he said. “If Notre Dame doesn’t have that approach, will the top Catholics want to come here? Even if our goal were to be more narrowly focused on just Catholic enrollment, if we want to maximize the top Catholics coming here, it has to be a more diverse place.”