Addressing the Affordability Dilemma for Middle-Class Families

A new $1 million scholarship fund endowed by Jim '90 and Lisa Mooney (below) targets middle-class, Boston-area families who are finding it increasingly difficult to finance a Holy Cross education.

By Christine Hofmann-Bourque

Tuition, room and board at Holy Cross-now $52,758-can send cold shivers down the backs of the parents of potential Crusader students far more than the biting winds and snows of a January nor'easter. Today, Holy Cross is in danger of being viewed as out of reach for a group of students that has traditionally enrolled in significant numbers: students from high income middle-class families. 

Many middle-class families face this financial dilemma: Their annual income and financial assets are too high for them to qualify for financial aid, as defined by both the federal government and most colleges and universities that administer financial aid on the basis of need, and yet have expenses and obligations that make it difficult for them to meet the tuition cost. This problem is especially prevalent in families committed to Catholic school education, who have had the additional budget burden of 12 years of tuition for Catholic grade schools and high schools, often for multiple children, even before college payments kick in.

The new Jim '90 and Lisa Mooney Scholarships are aimed at addressing this challenge. Funded with a gift of $1 million, the scholarships will help to meet the cost of a four-year education at Holy Cross for high-achieving, middle-class students from Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Boston. The scholarships, which take into account both merit and financial need, will be given out starting in the 2012-13 academic year.

"There is a whole category of kids who can't pay a substantial portion of their tuition, but are terrific students and would be a terrific part of the Holy Cross community," says Jim Mooney '90. "This helps Holy Cross more effectively compete for this great student. It all fits with the objective of making Holy Cross accessible."

Losing middle-class students due to financial considerations creates the danger that the College's makeup would begin to mirror that of many other elite colleges-very wealthy students, plus a small group of high-need students. "It's an issue we've been addressing for a long time, but it's increasingly a bigger issue because of the recession," says Lynne Myers, director of financial aid. Middle-class students who decline Holy Cross acceptance, she says, most often cite affordability as the issue.

"These middle-income families have always been a part of Holy Cross history," says Frank Vellaccio, senior vice president of the College. "We look at the Mooney Scholarships as a way to recruit really great students and help middle-income families that would have trouble financing the tuition, given all their other expenses."

Standing Up for Catholic Education

By targeting students at high schools in the Boston Archdiocese, this new Holy Cross scholarship reflects Jim and Lisa's passion for Catholic schools. "Catholic education is our primary philanthropic focus," says Jim, who sits on the board of Boston's Catholic Schools Foundation, which provides financial assistance for Catholic primary and high school educations. "Support of Holy Cross is an incredibly good way to articulate that priority."

The Mooneys know Catholic schools work. "On a pragmatic level, Catholic education gets results," says Jim. Catholic high schools have a 99 percent graduation rate, according to Boston's
Campaign for Catholic Schools, and 97 percent of students go on to college. The corresponding rates in many public schools are significantly less impressive. "On a higher level, I believe the value system of Catholic schools, which strives to instill in students a strong moral character and an ingrained sense of obligation to make a positive impact on the world around them, is unique and incredibly important," he says.

Providing resources that give Catholic high school students the opportunity to continue their education at a Jesuit college is a logical extension of the Mooneys' vision. "When you look at a Holy Cross education, it creates a framework for someone to follow many paths in life, but with a foundation of ethics, morality and a sense of responsibility to others," he says. "That's enormously valuable to the individual and, hopefully, to the community they are part of."


Mooneys on the Hill

Jim followed his father, James F. Mooney Jr. '52, to Holy Cross and majored in political science. He received an MBA from Georgetown University and is currently a partner at The Baupost Group, an investment firm in Boston. Jim's time on the Hill set him up for success, both personally and professionally. "My experience at Holy Cross very much shaped me as a person," Jim comments. He hopes that one or both of his two children-James IV, 12, and Catherine, 10-will also make it to the Hill, but he jokes that his son has other goals: "Right now, my son is seemingly a lot more concerned with being drafted into the NHL."

This is not the first scholarship Jim has helped create. During the Lift High the Cross Campaign, Jim and his father established a scholarship in honor of his mother, named The Joan Marie Mooney Scholarship Fund. "We get incredible letters of thanks from students who describe how the scholarship support has made an enormous impact in their lives, and that, of course, is tremendously gratifying."


Targeting "Perceived" Financial Need

The Jim '90 and Lisa Mooney Scholarships are unique in that they combine merit and financial-need qualifications. The challenge is identifying those middle-class students who fit the bill. After all, if a thousand people were asked today for their definition of "middle class," it's likely there would be a thousand different answers.

To find potential Mooney scholarship recipients, the Admissions Office at Holy Cross will first identify students who meet the scholarship's rigorous academic qualifications. The Financial Aid Office will then narrow down that list to those students with "perceived financial need," says Myers. "Perceived need" describes students and families who don't feel that they can afford the full cost of Holy Cross, so they apply for financial aid. When their income and assets are run through the school's standard need analysis, however, they qualify for very little, if any, financial assistance.

"The buying power of a middle-class income has changed," says Vellaccio. "Take the case of a fireman and nurse with four children who appreciate Catholic education and together have a combined income of $170,000. They would not qualify for significant financial aid. Maybe they could get a federal loan, but they would find it very difficult to take $50,000 a year off of their gross income and use it to pay for one child's Holy Cross education, particularly when they're likely to have been investing in primary and secondary Catholic schools for multiple children, have a reasonable mortgage, car payments, etc."

Vellaccio emphasizes that the increased cost of higher education is forcing colleges to re-think how they should do need analysis, and yet only a handful of schools have the resources to be more liberal in their need analysis. At the same time he stresses, "Middle-income Catholic families have always been a strong foundation for Holy Cross, and we need to find a way to make the College  accessible to them. Merit scholarships like the Mooney Scholarships are a means by which we can do it." He argues that these scholarships really help families to make the right decision. "It is unfortunate if investing in Catholic education at the primary and secondary levels leads a family to make a different college choice."


Good for the College and the Student

The hybrid merit/need-based Mooney Scholarships join only a handful of merit-only scholarships at the College, including The Rev. Henry Bean, S.J., Scholarships for Classics Study and The Rev. John Brooks, S.J., '49 Music Scholarships. "The most highly qualified students have all the choices in the world. We want them to make the right choice and choose Holy Cross," says Vellaccio, who equates putting together a great student body with assembling a winning athletic team. "You go out and try to recruit a great quarterback, and he can have a great impact on the football team," he says. "He can't do it by himself, but as part of the team he makes a tremendous difference. Recipients of merit scholarships have a similar effect. They lift the level of dialogue and competitiveness in the classroom and are tremendous for other students to interact with and faculty to work with."

Because merit scholarships are offered at the time of acceptance, they're a powerful recruiting tool and have been used successfully to lure students away from other elite schools. "If a student is accepted by Duke, Middlebury, Georgetown and Holy Cross-and we're the only one offering him or her a merit scholarship-the student is likely to choose Holy Cross," Vellaccio notes.


Alumni Can Create Merit Scholarships

"We've decided we want to do more merit scholarships, and we'd love alumni to fund them," says Vellaccio. "Someone who loves literature could fund a merit scholarship for an English major." Merit scholarships, however, will never be funded at the expense of the College's absolute commitment to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of all its accepted students. "The balancing act is this: The College has been able to finance and afford its policies of need-blind admissions and meeting the full demonstrated need of all admitted students, but cannot afford to do so and also offer a significant number of merit scholarships," Vellaccio explains. "In order for us to offer more merit scholarships, we need to raise funds from alumni, parents and friends to endow them."

As for the Mooney Scholarships, Jim has big plans for these awards that are still in their infancy. "Now, it's a relatively small number of kids who benefit," he says. "But it is our sincere hope that we will be able to grow this scholarship over time."