Notre Dame needs to plan for economic diversity
Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, September 20, 2023
Recent reporting in The New York Times Magazine highlights a problem that should trouble every member of the Notre Dame family — the University’s failure to enroll a greater percentage of low-income students and the fact that no measurable progress has been made in improving this situation in the last decade.
According to data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics cited by the Times, only 12% of Notre Dame freshmen in the 2020-2021 academic year received Pell grants. These federal subsidies are available to low-income families (typically those earning $60,000 per year or less) and are thus a helpful measure of schools’ economic diversity. At a 12% freshmen Pell grant share, Notre Dame is significantly behind peer institutions. Among approximately thirty “highly endowed” institutions (universities with endowments of at least $1 million per student), Notre Dame is at the back of the pack, ahead of only Caltech (10%) and Washington and Lee (10%). Many of our peers have almost double our percentage. I’m confident that we’ll take care of Stanford on the football field in November, but the Cardinal (20%) have us crushed on this front. So do Northwestern (20%), Johns Hopkins (20%) and Vanderbilt (18%), among others.
What is even more concerning than Notre Dame’s current dearth of economic diversity is the lack of any improvement in this area over time. Our freshmen Pell grant share in 2020-2021 was 12%. Ten years earlier it was… 12%. Again, this is in sharp contrast to our peers. Stanford et al. haven’t always been so far out ahead of us when it comes to welcoming low-income students. They’ve just made enormous strides in the past decade (with percentage increases ranging from 4% to 8%) while we’ve been standing still.
This would be unacceptable at any institution. Given Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and its blue collar roots, it is a scandal.
Whatever plan the University has had to date for improving economic diversity on campus, I respectfully, but insistently submit that it has plainly failed. The University maintains a webpage with a list of quotations from Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. The very first entry on this list reads “Our words are buttressed by our deeds, and our deeds are inspired by our convictions.” If I might be so presumptuous as to expand upon a great man’s thoughts, I would say that it is not only our deeds that matter, but our results. When it comes to better including low-income students in the Notre Dame community, the results make clear that our words and deeds have not yet been enough.
Notre Dame needs a new plan for increasing economic diversity on campus. Developing and executing this plan must be one of the University’s top priorities in the years ahead. The plan should be comprehensive, involving everyone with a role to play in addressing this problem — admissions officers to identify and recruit low-income students, faculty and staff to ensure they feel welcome on campus, etc. We know it can be done because others have already done it. In creating our plan, we should learn from their successes.
Notre Dame’s website of Fr. Hesburgh’s quotations includes another one of my favorites: “Whatever you value, be committed to it and let nothing distract you from this goal.” Notre Dame values service and an inclusive community. Its commitment to those values must begin (but certainly not end) at home.
Christian M. McNamara
Director of the New Bagehot Project at the Yale Program on Financial Stability
Class of 2004
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.