Opinion: 50 years of growth at Fairfield U. come with a cost

Fairfield University’s $51 million, 3,500-seat Leo D. Mahoney Arena opened recently.

Fairfield University’s $51 million, 3,500-seat Leo D. Mahoney Arena opened recently.

Contributed photo / Steve McLaughlin / Fairfield University Athletics

My alma mater Fairfield University was recently featured on the front pages of the sports section of the local newspaper and the business section of the New York Times . The local story about the women’s basketball team opening the school’s new arena with a victory was notable because the newspaper covers UConn athletics extensively while giving short shrift to local schools like Fairfield, Sacred Heart University and the University of Bridgeport.

The Times story also opened with a reference to the new $51 million Leo D. Mahoney Arena, but its focus was on diversity, pointing out that the Class of 2020 had the lowest percentage (7.5 percent) of Pell Grants in the country. Pell Grants are the federal government’s assistance to college students requiring financial aid; the maximum award is $6,845. Tuition at Fairfield is $52,870, so needy students require a package of grants and loans, but the Pell Grant percentage is a proxy for a college’s commitment to educating the poorest students.

Lack of access to higher education for the poor is one way economic injustice is transmitted across generations. Only 10 percent of the students in the most selective colleges are from the bottom 40 percent of United States family income distribution. Students from the top quintile are more than five times more likely to attend a highly selective college than those from the lowest (37 percent versus 7 percent), and those in the top 1 percent are 77 times more likely at attend a highly selective college than those in the lowest quintile.

Catholic colleges replicate this paradigm. The two most prestigious Catholic colleges, Notre Dame and Georgetown, both admit more students from the richest 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. More than 15 percent of Notre Dame’s student body is from the richest 1 percent, and 10 percent from the poorest 60 percent; Georgetown draws more than 20 percent from the richest 1 percent, and 13.5 percent from the poorest 60 percent. Fairfield does better on this metric. Only 10.9 percent of its students come from the richest 1 percent, while 19.3 percent come from the bottom 60 percent.

These statistics should give pause to those who argue that affirmative action interferes with colleges’ meritocratic admissions.

Catholic colleges claim a commitment to social justice, yet other dynamics are clearly at play. The Times pointed out the challenges for a school as young as Fairfield, established in 1942. Centuries-old private colleges have built massive endowments providing significant income beyond tuition and fundraising, and so have more flexibility in funding diversity initiatives. Financial considerations constrain strategic planning.

About five years ago, Fairfield was in an admissions trough with implications not only for short-term budgeting but also long-term sustainability. The administration developed an enrollment plan prioritizing selectivity. While some trustees recognized that this could compromise diversity, the plan has succeeded on its own terms. The Times quoted president Mark R. Nemec’s boast that Fairfield is “now the seventh most selective Catholic university,” up from 50th in 2017.

How did this happen? Tuition is north of $50,000 at many private colleges, and room and board adds another $13,600. With fees, books and transportation, the advantage of the rich who don’t require financial aid is apparent.

Beyond the issue of financial need is that of merit awards. Colleges recruit accomplished students by discounting tuition for those who outperform their applicant pool — those with higher grade point averages and SAT or ACT scores, and multiple Advanced Placement courses. Many colleges, including UConn, have done so for years in order to improve their academic profiles.

Adherents to the myth of meritocracy in admissions ignore the advantages rich suburban students enjoy over their poor urban competitors, like 12 years of superior public or private education. Bridgeport’s per-pupil spending is $17,555, according to U.S. News and World Report; Greenwich’s is $28,473. Harding High School offers seven AP courses; Greenwich High School offers 29.

Furthermore, merit aid is offered to entice above-average students. The Times reported that Fairfield offered 89 percent of its applicants who had no financial need (generally a family income over $200,000) an average award of $17,881 for their freshman year.

As a former Catholic school principal, I recognize the tension between need-based and merit-based financial aid, and the role of the latter in building a school’s reputation and brand. High-achieving students (and athletes) attract other applicants and build enrollment. Catholic high schools and some private colleges which did not adequately attend to sustainability have been forced to close; the Diocese of Bridgeport’s 10 high schools have dwindled to four.

But having said all that — offering financial aid to millionaire families? And ranking last nationally in Pell Grants? These policies do not serve the common good, but reproduce an unjust economic order.

My graduating class celebrated its 50th reunion last June. While Fairfield’s growth does not match the recent expansion of Sacred Heart, it has doubled the size of the library, built new dorms, business and nursing schools, a theater, stadium and now an arena, a chapel (named for a donor as well as a saint), and broken ground for a community college in Bridgeport’s East Side. So by some measures Fairfield has made tremendous progress.

But I recall a 2019 visit by Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, a network of businesses in East Los Angeles helping gang members rebuild their lives. I was impressed when Nemec introduced him, because college presidents rarely introduce guest lecturers.

I remember some of Nemec’s remarks. He said institutions like Fairfield should not be ivory towers, but involved in the community. The reason for my recollection is that he never used “Catholic” or “Jesuit” in describing Fairfield’s mission, an omission I pointed out to the Fairfield Prep student who happened to be sitting beside me, attending the lecture for extra credit in his theology class.

Jesuit vocations have declined since the 1970s, and the boards of Jesuit high schools and colleges have long wrestled with succession planning. As responsibility shifts to the laity, how do Jesuit institutions preserve their mission and identity?

Fairfield’s trustees should renew these discussions. Jesuit high schools have invested heavily in forming lay leaders for a future with fewer or even no Jesuits. Jesuit colleges need to re-examine their efforts in this regard.

Joseph Gerics, of Stratford, is a retired Catholic school educator.