The opening of the Leo D. Mahoney Arena on November 18 and the women’s basketball team’s inaugural victory within it proved to be an exciting moment in Fairfield University’s history. However, the arena, the win and their wider implications for the university were cast in a very different light by New York Times columnist Ron Lieber just the next morning.

Lieber, the author of the New York Times “Your Money” column since 2008, critiqued the university’s increasingly selective admissions statistics, drawing attention to Fairfield’s dead-last finish in the most recent rankings of American universities by the percentage of Pell Grant recipients in attendance.

Pell Grants are need-based financial aid resources provided to low-income students by the federal government. According to federal data, the maximum amount awarded for the 2022-23 award year was $6,895. Further, as stated in Lieber’s piece, Pell Grants most often go to families with incomes under $60,000. 

We decided to dive into this story, researching Fairfield’s admissions statistics, its shifting demographics and the circumstances surrounding the New York Times piece itself. Lieber was kind enough to speak with us about his perspective on admissions at Fairfield. He also offered a concise framework that other universities in similar positions have followed to increase their Pell numbers, specifically citing Washington University in St. Louis as a prominent example.

With that said, let’s dive into the big questions that have been on the Fairfield community’s mind since the column’s publication.

Are the statistics accurate? Does Fairfield have very few Pell Grant recipients?

The short answer is yes. As the column indicates, the number of Pell Grant recipients at Fairfield has declined into the single digits. There has also been an overlap between Fairfield’s rapidly increasing selectivity and this decline in Pell recipients over the past several years.

However, it may not necessarily be possible to draw a correlation between these two developments. As the column tells us, Fairfield’s decline in Pell recipients began around 2016. However, the university’s previously modest gains in terms of selectivity have, for the most part, rapidly accelerated only since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Fairfield’s low number of Pell recipients in attendance is concerning, this decline largely began before the school’s meteoric rise in the rankings. Selectivity might be a factor, but it is almost certainly not the sole cause.

Does the low number of Pell recipients indicate a disregard for low-income students on the part of the university?

Well, this question depends on your reading of the Pell Grant-recipient metric as a clear indicator of a university’s care for its low-income students. Lieber’s focus on the university’s status as a four-year institution with the lowest number of Pell Grant recipients—7.5 percent—in its 2020-21 first-year class seemed to suggest neglect on the part of the university toward such students.

Is this metric the be-all and end-all, however? In our discussion with Lieber over the phone, he agreed with us that it is not. 

When these numbers are examined solely by the number of students in attendance, it would certainly seem that the price of the school’s increased selectivity is a loss of Pell students.

But, what about the Pell recipients who attend Fairfield? Admissions are one thing, but such metrics only tell part of the story for low-income students at the university. The six-year graduation rate for Pell recipients at Fairfield is 79 percent, compared to a national average of 51.4 percent over the same period. This is a rather telling statistic; unfortunately, it did not make the cut for the New York Times column.

While admissions statistics are released yearly, the aforementioned six-year graduation rates that universities provide to the federal government take much longer to compile. As a result, the most recent available data does not account for Fairfield’s unprecedented upsurge in popularity with prospective students over the past several years.

As Fairfield University’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Jennifer Anderson ‘97 stated, universities are not required to provide enrolled Pell students “with a full-need-met financial aid package.” Fairfield offers this package to the majority of its Pell students, however, granting them between $60,000 to $70,000 in additional aid, according to Anderson.

“While Fairfield won’t be the largest destination for Pell students, we will provide high-need students with the financial and community support they need to graduate on time and with minimal debt,” Anderson said. 

Nonetheless, it would appear that there is progress to be made on behalf of the university. As Lieber pointed out in his New York Times column and according to federal data, the university’s first-year, full-time undergraduates whose families had incomes of $30,000 or less paid a net price of $31,018 during the 2020-21 academic year. During the 2019-20 academic year, such students paid a lower net price of $21,044. It does raise the important question of why the net price for the lowest-income students at Fairfield increased by nearly $10,000. 

Looking further, since the university’s full-time, undergraduate tuition amounts to $53,630, Pell Grants alone do not adequately provide qualifying students with affordable access to the university, which is why Fairfield offers many other forms of financial aid.

These forms of aid include: the Bridgeport Tuition Grant that provides full tuition scholarships to Bridgeport students whose annual family income is less than $50,000, the Company Scholars program that offers full room and board to first-generation, BIPOC graduates of Jesuit and Cristo Rey high schools, the Maguire Scholars Program that is offered to students whose expected family contribution is $15,000 annually or less, need-based Fairfield Tuition Grants as well as merit aid.

Ultimately, whether or not one small category of financial aid should determine the inclusivity of a university is a matter of opinion. We simply wish to demonstrate that there is more here than meets the eye. 

Why did the New York Times column not include more contextual information about Fairfield University’s support for low-income students, then?

In our discussion with Lieber, he explained that he “can’t use somewhere between 95 and 99.5 percent of the information” he’s gathered for most of his columns. He further discussed the difficulties with the university’s communication that he encountered, as well as his inability to get some of the answers he was looking for. 

After talking to both Anderson and Lieber, we learned more of the communication that took place prior to publication. 

Lieber told us that after some initial resistance, Anderson and Corry Unis, ​​vice president for strategic enrollment management at the university, agreed to speak “on background, without attribution,” and that if he wanted certain quotes for attribution, the university would “consider responding to certain questions in writing.” 

Wondering why he could not have a conversation verbally, Lieber asked the university for an explanation. He told us that the response was, “As a matter of policy, Fairfield University provides written statements for on the record responses.”

In an effort to still gain more contextual information beyond the single 7.5-percent statistic, Lieber told us that he asked the university for the number of students currently enrolled from the income bands “just above those low-income bands that would typically be Pell eligible.”

However, the university never gave him access to such information. 

“Not only did they not provide alternative metrics on the question of the low-income population and commitment to or lack thereof to increase the low-income population, when I came up with my own metric and asked them for data that I know that they have, they didn’t give it to me—the satisfaction metric,” Lieber told us. 

We reached out to Anderson and Nicole Heller, Fairfield University research analyst and strategic initiative specialist, to confirm whether statistics exist that measure satisfaction and sense of belonging at the university for Pell students, specifically. Anderson confirmed that they do exist. 

Anderson shared with us the information that she was able to send to Lieber in writing, which outlined Fairfield’s financial aid efforts, both pertaining to Pell Grant recipients and the general student population.

As Lieber made clear to us, this style of communication was dissatisfying. In his experience, universities with low Pell numbers have “gotten on the phone within hours” to discuss the matter in greater detail. His experience with Fairfield was more akin to extracting “answers from the White House.”

Has the university shirked its Jesuit responsibility to low-income students in pursuit of selectivity in admissions?

All too often, the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis or “care for the entire person” is used to make a claim that Fairfield does not live up to its mission.

True, the university could encourage a donation campaign like that of Washington University to further its outreach to low-income students. But we have found that Fairfield has chosen a different path, one more in keeping with its identity.

We need look no further than the Bellarmine Initiative to see how the money from Fairfield’s increasingly selective community is being utilized for the good of the community. The increased access to associate’s degrees for local low-income students might not be as flashy as an arbitrarily high number of Pell recipients, but it is undeniably in lockstep with the ideals that have made Fairfield such an attractive institution for students from all walks of life.

The question remains: How did Fairfield end up with so few low-income students?

Ultimately, this question remains unanswered. Even Lieber expressed to us that he was unable to answer exactly how the university ended up with such a low number of Pell students.

The circumstances surrounding the inquiries are undeniably strange. On the one hand, Fairfield’s hesitance to freely provide data is curious to say the least, and doesn’t necessarily help the school rid itself of the perception that it is uninterested in going above and beyond to help potential low-income students.

As Lieber made clear to us, it was his intention to cover whichever nationally-ranked university had the lowest number of Pell Grant recipients in attendance; Fairfield just so happened to be that school. In truth, it should not be that surprising that Fairfield, having only recently made the jump in the rankings from regional to national university, has a long way to go toward increasing these numbers.

On the other hand, the column’s publication on the heels of the arena inauguration and its negation of Fairfield’s most notable outreach efforts are equally troubling. We certainly wish that there had been greater clarity from the start on all sides of these exchanges. Without the appropriate data, even the most well-intentioned examinations can become dominated by hearsay and a few choice quotes.

It is our opinion that this column and its analysis of Fairfield is indicative of a very interesting time in the university’s history, an inflection point if you will.

Make no mistake: Pell Grants remain a key metric in determining the relative inclusivity of universities. But Fairfield is undoubtedly a university in transition. A snapshot of one school at one moment in time is not necessarily indicative of how selectivity will impact its outreach. Fairfield is using its enhanced prestige and notoriety to reach out to low-income students, even in ways that narrow analyses of Pell data cannot demonstrate. 

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