Affording Opportunity

Author: Sarah Cahalan '14

News Lead Web Illustration by Richard Mia

On the website of the University’s Office of Financial Aid, a six-line chart lays out the stark picture of what it costs to attend Notre Dame.


For the average undergraduate in the 2019-20 school year, tuition and fees will cost $55,553. Room and board ring in at $15,640. Add in things like textbooks and travel to and from campus, and the one-year cost of attendance at the University is estimated at $74,193.


By contrast, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2017 that the median annual income for an American household is $61,372.


It’s hardly news that the price tag of an education at Notre Dame or any elite university is staggeringly high. But the price tag doesn’t tell the full story.


A second chart shows that, for students whose families earn less than that national standard, the University’s median scholarship offer covers nearly 90 percent of tuition, room and board — and the number of students who fall into that range is growing every year. In 2017-18, Notre Dame provided $140 million in need-based scholarships, with 68 percent of the student body receiving some form of financial aid.


“I believe the University has really stepped up in putting its money where its mouth is, in terms of trying to affect the sense of belonging for students who are of low socioeconomic status,” says Consuela Wilson, director of the Office of Student Enrichment.


Case in point? Notre Dame’s growing relationship with QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization founded in 2004 that works to connect high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds to its participant list of 40 elite universities across the United States.


“We’re built on the foundation of working-class kinds of folks, so it resonates with us to attract low-income families,” says Mary Nucciarone, the University’s director of financial aid. “And in my time here, that program has been one of our biggest strategies.”


QuestBridge’s defining feature is its National College Match program. Students make a list of their top-choice schools, and the schools make lists of the QuestBridge applicants who best fit their campus communities. If a student and a school select each other, then voilà! It’s a match.


In the past, Notre Dame admitted as many as 20 QuestBridge matches per year. For the incoming class of 2023, that number soared to 41 — and the number of QuestBridge admits doesn’t stop there. Students who don’t “match” with their dream school can still go there as long as they earn admission, and this year, 70 of these students have chosen to attend Notre Dame. 


The difference is financial: Where matches are guaranteed a full-ride scholarship, non-matched students are processed through the standard financial aid system. “We’re going to make a significant financial commitment to [those students] in terms of scholarship aid,” Nucciarone says. “It’s not exactly the same as a match, but most of the QuestBridge students, non-matched, are also going to get a no-loan or a very-low-loan package.”


That kind of support tends to apply to all students of limited means at Notre Dame — but this hasn’t always been the case. Prior to the 1990s, Nucciarone says, a student’s financial aid package was “two loans and a job.


“And believe it or not, that pretty much covered it.”


But today, a part-time job won’t get you very far. When The New York Times interviewed Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A. about the rising cost of attendance in 2017 — “Does God Want You to Spend $300,000 for College?” the headline asked — the University president admitted that a simple summer job was enough to cover half his undergraduate tuition. The Times calculated that a student today would have to work 4,000 hours — twice the annual requirement of a full-time position — at a campus job to earn half the cost of Notre Dame’s tuition.


Asking a student to pick up a few thousand shifts at Legends does not a financial aid package make, and the University knows it. To avoid this Sisyphean work-study scenario, Notre Dame’s financial aid packages lean heavily on need-based scholarships and minimally on student employment and student loans.


The average Notre Dame undergraduate student finishes with just $22,000 in student-loan debt. “There are some schools out there who might add something like a federal PLUS loan to their financial aid notification to say, ‘We met your need,’” Nucciarone says, referring to loans parents can take to help their student pay for college. “That’s not meeting need.”


Truly meeting a student’s need, she explains, means providing them with the funds to attend without taking on crippling debt — and QuestBridge is hardly the only program that helps with that effort. The Posse and AnBryce scholars programs are just two of the opportunities Notre Dame offers for first-generation and low-income students to matriculate at little to no cost. For other students, outside scholarships from their home communities can help them achieve the same end.


I fell into that last group as an undergrad.


Indiana’s 92 counties each give out a select number of Lilly Endowment Community Scholarships per year. The award pays full tuition at any four-year university in Indiana where the student is admitted. Notre Dame was my dream school, but I applied knowing I could only go here if I won that Lilly award.


A few weeks before my high school graduation, the local Lilly committee surprised me at school with a bouquet of lilies and the news that I had won one of my county’s two scholarships. I screamed and cried in an unscripted show of emotion that these days would probably have become a viral video.


Though Nucciarone and her staff may not word it this way, the goal of the University’s aggressive financial aid commitment is to create more stories like mine and fewer of its inverse, where a student pins her hopes to a school only to find out that she can’t afford it.



Stories like mine do unfold every year — a search of “Questbridge + Notre Dame” on Twitter yields dozens of smiling faces and offer-letter screenshots — but the University also knows that students need more than a financial aid package to succeed.


“It’s not all about just sending them a financial aid decision,” Nucciarone says. It’s also about “following up immediately.” To make sure they understand the legalese of their admission packet. To make a personal connection. And to find out: What other help do you need?


Notre Dame has long had “rector funds” to assist students with incidental expenses that aren’t covered by financial aid: football tickets, winter coats, et cetera. Today such resources are administered centrally by the inconspicuously named Office of Student Enrichment.


“It’s not inherent in the title what we do,” says Consuela Wilson, the office’s director. She explains that the obscurity was an intentional choice when the Division of Student Affairs formed the department four years ago — to spare students having to visit an office that would automatically mark them as first-generation or low-income.


Yet that is the OSE’s target demographic. The mission, Wilson says, is “to assist students in having that Notre Dame experience, whatever that might look like to them, in a way where finances aren’t a barrier.” Though OSE advertises its services to all students, the financial aid office also helps to ensure that students in need know what student enrichment can do for them.


Sometimes, “enrichment” takes the form of financial assistance with things like retreat fees, hall apparel or emergency medical services. Other times, it’s programming: Teaching a student formal dining etiquette before a lunch interview, for instance, or helping them learn to navigate the library.


If the admissions office gets a student in the door and financial aid helps them manage tuition, room and board, OSE comes into play once they’ve arrived to make sure they can succeed in an environment where they may not automatically feel like the typical Notre Dame student.


Wilson estimates that around nine percent of the current student body is considered “low-income.” By contrast, according to a 2017 study by the Opportunity Insights research group at Harvard University, about 15 percent of Notre Dame students are “one percenters” — children whose parents make $630,000 or more per year, placing them in the top one percent of earners nationwide.


More can be done to improve on this disparity, and financial aid and admissions officials are committed to getting there. But Nucciarone and Wilson say that, even before those numbers change, the campus community can begin by changing its own culture.


Such a shift might mean training professors to avoid assignments that prompt students to ask their parents about their college experiences, or helping economically well-off students understand that not all of their classmates have the cash for a weekly Chipotle run or an elaborate spring break vacation. It also means knowing what’s unfolding in the dorm room next door or in the classroom down the hall.


“When you give people the knowledge about what their peers are experiencing, they can do with it what they want,” Wilson says. “But before they have the knowledge, they don’t have the capability to do anything with it or to do better. So that’s what we want to do.”


“It’s a matter of looking and seeing,” Nucciarone adds.


She recalls a student who visited her office on a frigid day in February. Someone asked him where his coat was, and he claimed he’d left it in his room since he was just running a quick errand. But the temperatures that day had barely crept above zero. Nucciarone called the student’s rector and asked him to check in. Sure enough: The young man had no coat at all.


“How could all of us have walked around from November to February and never noticed the boy didn’t have a coat? Are we so wrapped up in our scarf or our phone or whatever it is that we just don’t even notice?”


Taking the time to see the realities of the students around us, she says, is key to creating a community where everyone’s needs are met and every student, rich or poor, feels they fit in.


When the admissions office sends out notification letters each year, admitted students all receive the same message at the top of their packet:


“Congratulations. Welcome home.”


The Office of Residential Life takes care of the “home” part. But the “welcome” part rests with everyone.


Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine.