Catholic colleges have long been known for their generous financial aid, which for many decades helped students from Catholic immigrant and working-class families climb the economic ladder in the United States.
But a new study accuses many of America’s wealthiest colleges of using aid to recruit middle-class students instead of serving the educational needs of low-income families. These include several large Catholic universities: Boston College, Saint Louis University, Santa Clara University, the University of Dayton, the University of Notre Dame and Villanova University.
“With their relentless pursuit of prestige and revenue, the nation’s public and private four-year colleges and universities are in danger of shutting down what has long been a pathway to the middle class for low-income and working-class students,” writes Stephen Burd, senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation and author of Undermining Pell: How Colleges Compete for Wealthy Students and Leave the Low-Income Behind.
Burd and the New America Foundation appear to come from a left-leaning perspective. Burd assumes that even private colleges have an obligation to make education available to needy students at extraordinarily low prices, a debatable premise that makes most colleges seem stingy. In fact, America’s private colleges provide millions of dollars in need-based aid and substantial price discounts—a charitable commitment that is quite admirable.
But Burd’s report helps make an important distinction between “financial aid” (loans and grant aid) that is used to attract students from middle-income families, and the free or very low-cost education that Catholic schools and colleges have historically provided to the least fortunate. Whereas the former is often a sort of variable pricing that offers steep discounts and low-interest loans—often benefitting middle-class families that didn’t save for college—the latter is charity.
Given the high priority that Catholic colleges place on teaching students compassion for the poor and needy, one would expect those with the largest endowments to be among the most charitable. Instead, Burd finds that even steeply discounted prices at several top-ranked Catholic universities are prohibitive for low-income students, defined as having family incomes of $30,000 or less.
Burd looks at 479 private four-year colleges included in the 2010endowment survey of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. He reports:
There are 79 private colleges with endowments of more than $250 million that charge low-income students an average net price over $10,000; 51 that charge over $15,000; and 26 that charge over $20,000.
That prompted The Cardinal Newman Society to look specifically at Catholic colleges. We found 17—about eight percent of four-year Catholic colleges in the U.S.—that had endowments larger than $250 million in FY 2010. Not one of the 17 appears on Burd’s lists of most charitable colleges for low-income students, measured by percent of students receiving federal Pell Grants and the average cost of attendance (net price) for each low-income student in the 2010-2011 academic year.
But six wealthy Catholic universities appear on Burd’s list of institutions with relatively low percentages of Pell Grant recipients and high net price for the neediest students—including three Jesuit institutions,despite the Jesuits’ traditional emphasis on social concerns.
At Santa Clara University in California, Burd reports, the average price charged to low-income students was a whopping $46,347—more than150 percent of their families’ annual income. And yet Santa Clara’s endowment (more than $600 million) was among the largest 100 for private colleges in the U.S.
The Jesuits’ Saint Louis University had an even larger endowment—more than $700 million in FY 2010—and yet charged low-income students an average of $23,842. And Boston College, with one of the nation’s largest endowments of nearly $1.5 billion,still charged needy students an average of $13,128.
The University of Notre Dame has the largest endowment of any Catholic university ($5.2 billion in FY 2010) and the 14thlargest of all American universities. Notre Dame pours millions into financial aid: admission is “need-blind,”meaning that the University accepts students without regard to their ability to pay the sticker price, and more than $110 million in need-based scholarships was provided to students in the 2012-2013 academic year.
And yet Notre Dame charged $11,939 to low-income students in FY 2010, about 40 percent or more of their families’ annual income.
Two other Catholic universities are criticized by Burd: the University of Dayton in Ohio, which had an endowment of more than $326 million but charged low-income students $15,818; and Villanova University in Pennsylvania, with a nearly $300 million endowment but a cost of $16,580 for needy students. Only 11 percent of Villanova’s students received Pell Grants, which was small relative to other colleges, according to Burd.
What about smaller, poorer Catholic colleges—have they been able to maintain the historical Catholic commitment to helping the less fortunate? Not really. Burd explains that colleges with smaller endowments generally enroll larger numbers of Pell Grant recipients, but because of their dependence on tuition income, they must charge high net prices to meet their budgets.
None of the 22 colleges recommended in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College—generally smaller but more traditionally Catholic than the more-secularized Catholic universities—has an endowment larger than $250 million. That means they are less able to offer steep discounts to low-income families, although a Cardinal Newman Society report in 2009 found them generally more affordable than other Catholic colleges and generous with total financial aid.
Given the historical importance of Catholic universities to Catholic immigrant and working-class families, the trend identified by Burd is troubling—especially for today’s largely Hispanic immigrants, who are disproportionately absent from most Catholic campuses.
Burd blames the wealthiest universities for putting their resources increasingly toward attracting students who help boost ratings like those in U.S. News and World Report. That means building country club-quality campus facilities, boosting faculty salaries, and recruiting students who are most certain to complete a degree. While these are not bad priorities, Burd suggests that they may be squeezing out opportunity for the most needy students.
It’s reasonable to expect that public universities would fulfill that need, but Catholic institutions have long been a haven for immigrant and low-income Catholic families seeking a Catholic education. Considered together with ample evidence that many of these very wealthy Catholic universities have weakened their Catholic identities in both teaching and practice, declining charity may be yet another consequence of their quest for secular prestige over Christian principles.
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