Many Catholic colleges and universities boast uplifting stories about reaching out to promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, I have had the privilege of learning with a remarkable young man who overcame incredible odds to get here.
He grew up in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. As a child he went to bed hungry in a home with no running water. A bright and intellectually curious child, he attended one of Nairobi's best high schools until he was forced to drop out to support himself. At this point he became a "Chokoraa"--a "homeless scavenger." Life for him on the streets was unimaginable. He escaped multiple brushes with death while some of his friends perished violently.
Not knowing if and how he would survive, this young man's fortune took a dramatic turn. A missionary from the United States provided him with the financial assistance to complete high school. Moved by her faith and generosity, he decided to devote his life to assisting children like him by helping to establish a boarding school. While helping these children, life presented him with an opportunity that he would never have imagined: a chance to attend a university in the United States.
A graduate of St. Joseph's University who was volunteering in Nairobi put him in contact with several Jesuits there. They recommended him for admission to St. Joseph's. Thanks to the support of the university community, he was able to attend. The efforts of the alumnus and the university embody the ideals of Catholic social teaching, which obligates all people to stand in solidarity with the poor.
Although Catholic colleges and universities admit underprivileged students, stories like this are relatively rare on our campuses, including St. Joseph's. Most of the poor, both in the United States and globally, remain excluded from the halls of our institutions. Most of our students come from affluent backgrounds. Although we can and should celebrate stories like this one, many Catholic universities fail to sufficiently embody Catholic social teaching's option for the poor in our recruiting, admissions, and retention policies.
The Pell grant indicator is generally considered the best, albeit imperfect, tool for estimating low-income students. Pell-eligible students come from families earning less than $40,000 per year. This benchmark demonstrates that some Catholic colleges and universities have been more successful than others in recruiting, admitting, and retaining economically disadvantaged students.
Oddly enough, Catholic universities with the largest endowments lag behind smaller, less well-endowed schools in this regard. At more than $5 billion, the University of Notre Dame's endowment dwarfs all other Catholic universities. Yet only 8 percent of its student body comes from low-income families. Boston College, which has a $1.5 billion endowment, has 9 percent Pell recipients. Georgetown University follows with the next largest endowment (about $1 billion), with 7 percent Pell recipients.
Like these schools, many other Catholic universities fall near the bottom of U.S. News and World Report's "Economic Diversity" category in its "America's Best Colleges" report (which uses the Pell grant indicator). For example, in the Master's North category, Fairfield University in Connecticut, St. Joseph's University, Loyola University of Maryland, Providence College in Rhode Island, and Villanova University in Pennsylvania occupy five out of the six lowest rankings. Each school has less than 13 percent of students receiving Pell grants.
Many Catholic schools that are less endowed than Notre Dame, Boston College, and Georgetown have more Pell-eligible students. For example, Seton Hall University in New Jersey (19 percent), Loyola University of New Orleans (21 percent), and LaSalle University in Philadelphia (25 percent) fare much better. …