Parents occasionally ask me why Randolph invests in financial aid, the resource that the Board of Trustees sets aside in every annual budget to fund the School’s efforts to recruit and retain the best students from the most supportive families, regardless of their capacity to pay full tuition. This is a good question, and one that is important to answer, especially in the midst of an uncertain economy that has families, businesses, schools and universities understandably anxious about long-term financial sustainability.
In the interests of full disclosure, it’s important to me that the Randolph community know that I benefited from financial aid as a child. After my ninth grade year at Mackenzie Junior High School in Lubbock, Texas, I asked my parents if I might complete my high school years at a boarding school. I chose Woodberry Forest, applied, was (barely) accepted, and very eager to attend. My father earned a respectable salary, but nowhere near enough to afford expensive boarding school tuition, especially as my sister was finishing up college at the University of North Carolina.
So my parents applied for financial assistance, and Woodberry Forest supported my interest in making a decision that changed my life forever. I’ll never forget former Director of Institutional Advancement Dave Farace (now Head of School at Montgomery Academy) telling me a great story about his experience. Dave’s the the son of a career policeman, and he went to McDonogh School in Baltimore because of financial aid. From our personal perspectives, we believe in financial aid for obvious reasons. As Randolph’s Head of School, I unabashedly believe in the program because of what it brings to the entire school community.
Through our investment in individual learning, relational learning, and learning for the greater good, the magic of the Randolph community transforms the lives of children who attend and the teachers who work here. We are all made better by the best students we can attract to the School, regardless of the socio-economic circumstances that are beyond their control. Financial aid is a tool to support the School’s efforts to live out our admissions philosophy, which reads in part, “Randolph seeks the very best students and the most supportive families from wide-ranging backgrounds with an eagerness to learn and contribute to our community and programs.”
When I visit with alumni and ask what can improve the School, I often hear them emphasize diversity. Some feel that under-exposure to socio-economic diversity at Randolph did not prepare them well for college and the world beyond. Upper School students echoed this sentiment several years ago when our consultant Ian Symmonds asked what could make Randolph a better school. The quick and vigorous reply was “diversity.” The attitude of today’s students doesn’t differ much from David Leech, Randolph’s founding headmaster. Those who founded Randolph in 1959 were clear from the outset that they wanted students “able and willing to do good work,” regardless of a family’s financial circumstances.
While financial aid is important to what we call overall enrollment management, we keep the process strictly separate from the decision to accept or deny a child’s application to the School. We want the admissions process to be as need-blind as it can be. After we admit a child to the School, the family is invited to apply for financial assistance. For obvious reasons, this process is strictly confidential. Interested families are required to submit financial data (tax returns, investments, number of dependents in the household, liabilities and other material factors) to School and Student Services (SSS), an independent and objective third-party in Princeton, New Jersey charged with assessing the family’s circumstances and the School’s fees to determine in every case what the family can and cannot afford.
I know from experience that there can be a distinction between what a family feels it can afford and what the data show they can afford. We meet with families to make sure that we understand the various factors in every circumstance, but we routinely fall back to the SSS recommendation as the guidepost for what the School can offer in financial assistance. Ultimately the family decides whether or not their perceived value of the School’s programs and the Randolph community is worth the cost of what they can afford.
Driven by the economic downturn, a larger student body, and a growing awareness in Huntsville that Randolph has tuition assistance, financial aid has grown from $230,825 in 2008 to this year’s budgeted total of $607,040. The average grant (the School does not offer loans, by the way) has grown marginally over the same time period from $5,919 to $6,194, but the number of students served has increased from 39 in 2006 to 98 this year.
As a percentage of the total budget, financial aid has increased from 1.8 in 2008 to 3.5 today. The School funds the bulk of financial aid through Under the Christmas Tree (an event that generally clears $100,000), restricted gifts to Randolph’s endowment, and designated and undesignated gifts to the Randolph Fund. UTCT and the philanthropy of parents, grandparents, alumni, and friends of the School make a significant contribution to the teaching and learning climate we all enjoy at Randolph. These gifts are often the material difference between a child coming to Randolph or realizing that it’s just not possible to attend.
For the School’s long-term sustainability, it’s important to fund financial aid purely through philanthropy, ideally keeping the program completely separate from any other operating revenue. Too many colleges, universities, and independent schools have used the full price of tuition to fund financial aid, and the student body is a barbell mix of the few who can afford higher and higher tuition and the a growing number of who can afford less and less. This practice is not sustainable. We do not want to fall into that trap, as one of the School’s great strengths is the number of families with two parents who work and who make significant sacrifices for their children to attend Randolph.
As I look through the rolls of financial aid recipients over the years I’ve been at Randolph, I am deeply gratified by what this investment has done for our school. I see children who were able to stay at Randolph even though one or both parents lost a good-paying job in the Great Recession. I see the names of National Merit Semifinalists. I see the names of accomplished artists and student-athletes. I remember the stories of parents who cashed out a portion of their retirement and used financial aid to supplement their child’s education. The belief that they have in the promise and possibility of their children and their commitment to Randolph is both humbling and inspiring.
Not every child at Randolph, no matter what their circumstances at home, is a great success in school. We all struggle. Some of us come up short. Occasionally we fail. We are a human community, so that much is clear. But it’s even clearer to me that on the whole we’re made better through a diverse student body that comes together as a community to drive the lifelong learning we seek to make the world a better place.