How confident, determined action has made the university a standout on the national level

At a recent event to welcome and interact with the parents of prospective and incoming Fairfield students, University President Mark Nemec, PhD briefly outlined some of the school’s recent accomplishments. I was lucky enough to be one of the few students present to hear Dr. Nemec’s remarks; what I heard was not only pleasantly surprising—it was rather astounding.

I should preface by saying that I have been in the orbit of Fairfield University for quite a long time. My parents were graduates of the class of 1985 and met each other at Fairfield. My sister likewise graduated from the University in 2016. 

I have long felt, therefore, that I have maintained a good understanding of Fairfield as a university—a very strong regional school, with a particular emphasis on nursing and business. It was long apparent that Fairfield wasn’t the biggest draw at the national level, but for its location and size, the school has long enjoyed a very good standing within the Northeast.

For these reasons, I found myself stunned by the latest statistics, which Dr. Nemec so proudly listed. For one, Fairfield has become the seventh most selective Catholic university in the nation, joining the likes of Notre Dame, Boston College, and Georgetown University. Equally as impressive were the statistics on the return on investment of college students in the state of Connecticut. Naturally, Yale has maintained the top spot on the list as it has for many years. The college in second place, however? Fairfield University.

I was proud to learn that Fairfield University has achieved such a high level of recognition in only its 80th year of existence as an institution of higher learning. 

Photo from Fairfield University’s Flickr.

What shocked me was the realization that a university, which I had only ever known as a fairly inconspicuous regional school, was now in the crosshairs of thousands of young people across the nation.

 I resolved to examine Fairfield’s growth over recent years, not merely in terms of physical size, but also in terms of widespread recognition and confidence in its educational philosophy. It is these findings which I now submit for wider consideration in this inaugural edition of The Rearview.

A Growing, Diverse Applicant Pool

While it is not uncommon to hear muted grumbling from students about a lack of living space on campus or limited housing at the beach, the supposed “flood” of new students did not arrive overnight. This high level of student enrollment currently enjoyed by Fairfield has been a long time in the making. The incoming Class of 2026 is the largest in Fairfield’s history; furthermore, these students represent the school’s 12th consecutive year of growth within the University’s application pool, a tremendous achievement. The impressive academic credentials of said applicants have ensured that the University’s acceptance rate is considerably lower than it was just five years ago.

Fairfield’s newest students are helping to do away with the idea that Stag country belongs exclusively to wealthy suburbanites from the Northeast. The fact that the Class of 2026 contains representatives from 24 states and 10 other nations appears to demonstrate Fairfield’s ever-increasing influence beyond the East Coast. Furthermore, Fairfield’s efforts to create the Bellarmine Initiative clearly demonstrate a desire to reach out to those who seek an alternative path to the conventional four-year college degree.

These modest demographic changes do not necessarily mean that Fairfield will immediately begin to draw vast numbers of applicants from beyond the northeast. In truth, it is reasonable to expect that most Fairfield students will hail from the northeast for the foreseeable future. 

It cannot be denied, however, that the University has left a positive impression on students whom it may not have previously reached. Interestingly, the impetus for this newfound interest from such students appears to be partially the result of action taken by Fairfield’s administrators during one of the more complicated and challenging moments in the university’s history. 

Fairfield’s COVID Success Story

As a member of the Class of 2024, I am all too sensitive to the difficulties encountered within academia during the COVID-19 pandemic. The early days of the pandemic could have ushered in a time of severe austerity and reactionary judgment on the part of Fairfield’s administration. Larger, more prestigious universities were content to lean on their generous endowments and wait out the worst of the pandemic; in doing so, they effectively sold out the expectations of many of their students. Fully aware that such a strategy did not exist for Fairfield, the school opted to roll the dice and work tirelessly toward continued life on campus for its students.

Fairfield’s strategies for on-campus life in 2020 and 2021 were not perfect. Yet they were undeniably bold efforts to demonstrate the University’s commitment to its students and its promise to care for them throughout their limited time as undergraduates. 

While those of us in attendance at the time remained focused on the pitfalls of our hybrid-learning situation, students at other institutions – whether high school students applying to colleges or students at wholly online universities – took note of Fairfield’s diligent efforts to remain as in-person as possible.

The pronounced increase in interest among prospective students over the past two years can be partially attributed to Fairfield’s uncompromising commitment to its students throughout the pandemic. It is apparent now that the modern college student wants more than an old, prestigious name at the top of their degree—they want a school that will put them first.

Fairfield’s ability to gain momentum from the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than shirking its duty to its students, will undoubtedly remain one of its crowning moments in years to come. Fairfield’s message to all interested students is this: The university will never shrink from the challenges before it; Fairfield will consistently take decisive action and leave no student behind.

Conclusion

The more that I examined Fairfield’s development in recent years, the more apparent its successes became. However, it also became clear to me that Fairfield’s days as a university that is only well-regarded within its region are over. 

Fairfield has held fast to its Jesuit ideals and identity as a small college, while simultaneously courting students from all walks of life. Financial stability largely fueled by eager donation and investment by alumni have allowed the University to invest in considerable resources. Such resources have allowed for necessities like new and renovated housing, as well as major expansions, as evidenced by the impressive new Convocation Center. In effect, Fairfield no longer maintains any one identity—the University and all its accompanying opportunities can effectively belong to anyone.

Fairfield University and its community have begun to realize their potential to become one of the elite Catholic universities in the United States. 

Who knows how far this innovative and bold spirit will take the next generation of administrators and students?

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