Mission: Financial Aid

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

“Thank you, Notre Dame family.” With five years down on the Spirit of Notre Dame campaign and another two to go, that’s what Daniel Reagan ’76, director of principal gifts, says to the generosity — sustained through these tough times — that has brought his team within a statistical shimmy of reaching the University’s $1.5 billion overall fundraising goal.

That and: The place still needs your help.

Reagan is a good news kind of guy, so it pleases him to give an upbeat progress report. As of May 1, the campaign had collected a “phenomenal” 70 percent of all money pledged since its launch in July 2004. In other words, more than $1 billion has already come in the door. The donor participation rate is one of the best among the campaigns currently active in higher education, and Reagan expects it will get better as the campaign this month enters its “national” phase (translation: “If we haven’t secured a commitment from you yet, we’ll try one more time”).

Donors have found the Institute for Church Life and its Center for Social Concerns, the athletics program and unrestricted giving especially attractive. Each easily hit its target. Across the colleges and schools, Reagan says pledges to academic priorities are at least meeting expectations at the moment, though none has yet reached its final goal.

“We were really blessed that this campaign got off to such a strong start, and right through the middle had such a strong response,” Reagan says. “If ever there was a good excuse offered for not participating, it’s right now in 2009, with the backdrop of a terrible recession.”

University officials even briefly considered suspending the campaign last autumn, but decided to let major gift donors make that call through their attendance at campaign events. Reagan says they came, listened and left a message: They’ll do what they can, when they can. Such loyalty falls in his “good news” category.

Not all needs met

Now for the surprising bad news. The campaign’s largest item, $250 million in endowment support for undergraduate financial aid, is only two-thirds of the way toward its goal. Reagan tells a similar story for graduate student, law and MBA fellowships.

Undergraduate financial aid is especially important. While educating undergrads is an expensive enterprise, Reagan says Notre Dame intends to live up to its commitment of keeping tuition and fees affordable. “We still have students who turn themselves away out of fear of taking on too much debt,” he notes.

Joseph VanderZee, a rising sophomore from Grand Rapids, Michigan, can attest to that. “There is no way I could have even considered attending Notre Dame without a tremendous amount of scholarship money,” he explains.

VanderZee’s aid package involves four University-funded scholarships, including one for Glee Club members, and a safety net of loans. And while he tells donors at Spirit campaign events that a year ago he didn’t consider getting in to Notre Dame a “big deal,” he now sees it as God’s will. He plans to declare majors in history and Spanish, hopes to spend his junior year in Latin America, aims to write a senior honors thesis and will continue to discern a possible call to the priesthood.

Reagan’s worst fear is that while VanderZee pursues his plans, the recession will deepen and drain the campaign’s momentum. He adds that the impact of inviting President Obama to commencement will not be clear until the end of the year. On the eve of the event, only three pledges had been canceled and a “handful” of giving society donors had withdrawn in protest. Meanwhile, the most recent figures showed pledges and outright gifts coming in at the low end of the $12 million to $15 million per month range that Reagan says is a healthy pace at this stage.

If all goes well, he’ll shut his office door on June 30, 2011, having met the affordability standard, established support for the academy as a priority in benefactors’ minds and secured the money for the construction of new facilities for executive education, the social sciences and the hockey program.

In the meantime, he says his team’s top job is to be patient and sensitive. “Our donors deserve certainly to take their time.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.