Even on the most optimistic day, Denver is a long way from Cincinnati. But for an 18-year-old, deciding to leave the security of home in the high plains to start a new life as a Xavier student amidst the valleys and hills of the Queen City, the decision and the distance take on a larger significance. It’s a decision that requires courage and commitment of so many levels: spiritual, emotional, intellectual and financial.
Matt Robinson knows.
After visiting Xavier on his tour of colleges as a high school senior, Robinson felt like Xavier was the right place. But the biggest barrier before him wasn’t the miles between Denver and Cincinnati, it was the money. How could he afford it?
After applying and being accepted, the answer arrived one day in the mail. He was awarded a St. Francis Xavier Scholarship. Suddenly the gap between Xavier and a state university was closed and his decision made.
“Without it, I can say without a doubt I wouldn’t be here,” says Robinson, a philosophy, politics and the public major who plans to teach in inner-city schools as part of the Teach for America program after graduating in May. “Once it came through, I never looked back. I knew that I had to be here.”
Robinson’s story is, in many ways, a familiar one. One of four siblings—and the third of four to go to college—a school like Xavier could easily have been out of the question. “It just was not financially feasible to go to a place like this without any help,” he says.
Financial aid, in one form or another, has grown in importance in recent years. Now as college tuition costs creep higher nationally, competition for top students tightens and overall economic uncertainty continues, the importance of endowed scholarships at Xavier cannot be overstated.
“An endowed scholarship is, in my opinion, the most important gift somebody can give to the University,” says Peter Owendoff, Xavier’s senior regional director for development. “It’s intangible, but it has so many faces—it effects some many people in so many ways. Getting a loan is a little bit more difficult in the current economic conditions,. Xavier is not an inexpensive institution. It’s the generosity of individuals through scholarships that makes a Jesuit, Catholic education possible.”
The University is highly dependent on tuition, but tuition doesn’t cover the full cost of educating a student. It cost about $34,510 to educate one student for one year at Xavier. Each student pays an average of $17,889 out of pocket, leaving a gap of $16,621. At many schools, that gap would be made up with interest generated by endowed funds. At Xavier, much of that is drawn from the University’s general fund.
In his long association with the University, Gerald De Brunner has seen Xavier through the eyes of a student and as a member of the University’s board of trustees. This combination of inside/outside experiences give the 1959 graduate a long, well-rounded view of the way Xavier works. Looking at the big picture, De Brunner says, scholarships would clearly benefit from an increase in Xavier’s endowment, which has traditionally been far less than the endowments of the schools with which it competes.
“I was on the board of trustees for a long time, so I’m very familiar with the numbers,” he says. “If the University had more of that funded via the endowment, it could use more of that money for other good purposes. Less would have to come out of the general fund.”
As of August 2008, Xavier had approximately 357 endowed scholarships with a total equity of $41.5 million, an average equity just under $116,400 and a total market value of about $61 million. Projections for the 2009-2010 academic year indicate $37 million is needed for undergraduate tuition, and a total of $40 million is needed for all types of financial aid, including graduate tuition and remission. Of this, just $2.3 million will be funded by the endowed scholarships.
When it comes to endowed funds, here’s no question that Xavier is playing catch-up. “We are still behind schools we benchmark—Dayton, Marquette, John Carroll,” Owendoff says. “They had operations in place 20, 30, 40 years before Xavier, so their endowments are much greater than the ours. We’ve come a long way, but we have long way to go.”
Selling donors on the idea of endowing a scholarship can be tricky—at least initially. The concrete, tactile nature of bricks and mortar are often much more appealing, Owendoff says. But that attitude often shifts when donors see the real-life impact scholarships have on students.
Like Jana Clear. The junior marketing major from Hamilton, Ohio, overcame childhood leukemia and entered the University three years ago on an ultra-competitive Service Fellowship.
“For me, coming to Xavier was a choice that I knew I always wanted,” she says. “But having two brothers and being given a private education my whole life financially took a toll on my parents. But they really pushed me academically and gave me the opportunity to apply for this scholarship. I ultimately receive it, and that’s why I’m here. I’m not sure if Xavier would have been an option without the financial aid and the scholarship process.”
If the fellowship opened the door, Clear has worked hard to make the most of it. And she is well aware of what it means to her. “I’m confident that years from now, I will still find incredible value in what I have experienced,” she says. “At Xavier I’ve been taught how to think, not what to think, and that has given me the power to pursue my passions and mature into the young woman I am today. I already have a better understanding of my faith life and a realization of my scholastic ability.”
Of course, there was a time when Xavier students were able to work their way through school. But those days are long gone. The demands on students have changed and so has the face of financial aid.
“When I came here to school, there was no financial aid,” De Brunner says. “The financial aid we had was really the Jesuits, because they were the bulk of the teachers here. You could literally work your way through school by working a job and coming to school. You can’t do that today without financial aid. So in effect, if you’re talking to some of the older alums, they ought to be thinking they’re repaying the Jesuit endowment that they had when they were here.”
Owendoff underscores De Brunner’s point. He says those donors who set up scholarships are often those who themselves attended Xavier with the help of financial aid. Understanding the challenges students face sometimes results in a pay-it-forward attitude. “You cannot work your way through Xavier,” he says. “It’s not going to happen. Because of the rigorous core courses—you know, there are only so many hours in the day. For the actual true cost and what an 18-year-old can earn at Abercrombie and Fitch, it isn’t going to happen.”
This reality is not lost on Robinson. “I don’t know a single student at Xavier who doesn’t have some sort of financial aid or scholarship,” he says. “I feel like Xavier did everything it could to get me here, which was something unique in my college experience. It’s an individual focus. I’ve always appreciated that because it brings a really diverse group in—folks like myself from out of town, people from out of the country, even people from right in town that maybe never thought they could go here. They really get to take advantage of this amazing education because of the generosity of alums and friends.”