By Naomi Shulman
The next time you’re on campus, turn your gaze to the students: dozens of healthy, attractive, bright young boys and girls tromping across the quad as they make their way to their next classes, their meetings with their advisors, their lacrosse matches. These students come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Aside from a few trends that have apparently caught fire (hello, rubber Wellies!), the style and brands of clothing run the gamut. And while the subject matter may seem too gauche to bring up, you may find yourself wondering: What’s the breakdown here? Who is paying for this experience, and who is getting aid? Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Patricia Gimbel has a simple reply: “Every single one of these students is on financial aid,” she says firmly. “Every one of them.”
Gimbel goes on to explain: tuition to attend Deerfield, which now hovers at $48,000 per annum, including room and board, is itself subsidized via gifts to the Academy’s endowment, directed giving, and annual gifts. The actual cost to educate each student? “Approximately $72,000,” Gimbel says. She lets that sink in for a moment.
However, the fact remains that even Deerfield’s subsidized price tag of $48,000 is out of reach for all but two percent of American families. One might assume that is why about 50 percent of those who apply to the Academy also apply for aid—but that assumption would be wrong. “Deerfield, and most boarding schools, would have no trouble finding families who can afford to pay,” says David Pond, Associate Head of School for Alumni Affairs and Development. “It’s in the culture. We could fill the school with full-paying kids if we wanted to.”
But if Deerfield did that, they’d miss out on students like Ashley Laporte, Class of 2006. Back in 2002, Ashley was a promising 14-year-old living with her single mom in Vermont, who would have had no hope of attending a school like Deerfield without significant financial aid. Now in her early 20s and a Harvard graduate, she realizes exactly how valuable her education was.
“I’m not sure I was as appreciative as I should have been. Hindsight makes me realize the value—not just the dollar amount, but just how much the school gave to me,” says Ashley. “I’m almost thankful that I wasn’t very aware of it, because I can appreciate now how seamless it was, how my time at Deerfield wasn’t under a burden to be paid back,” she explains.
A far cry from her hometown, Ashley currently works for a brand consulting firm in New York City, where she synthesizes research findings and provides marketing strategy for a diverse roster of clients from around the globe—in financial services, hospitality, pharmaceuticals, and insurance, among others. It’s an intense job, and Ashley she says she can’t imagine landing it without having had her Deerfield experience. “Nope. No way. I wouldn’t have gone to Harvard, either, if I hadn’t been at Deerfield. I was able to open myself to many more opportunities than I could have had elsewhere. I’m not sure I’ll stay in consulting forever,” Ashley continues, but, “I do know that wherever I end up, I will continue to try and put myself in situations where I am constantly creating opportunities for myself and for others.”
Balancing the Barbell
One of the challenges that Richard Bonanno, Dean of Financial Aid, and the admission team have to work around is shared by secondary schools across the country. It’s known in these circles as the “barbell effect.” Consider what David Pond said: Deerfield has no trouble finding full-pay students; were the school to fill its seats with them, however, the student body would lose its multi-national feel and start to look more like a 1950s Sears catalog: not just white, but homogeneous. Since a homogeneous student body robs each student of a significant learning opportunity, Deerfield, like every other secondary school in its league, seeks to attract students of fewer means. Thanks to programs like Prep for Prep and KIPP, both of which reach promising students in urban and economically disadvantaged areas, there’s a significant representation from the lowest income brackets, too. In fact, during any given year there are 30 to 35 five kids attending Deerfield from those two programs alone. Students from privileged backgrounds fill up the circle at one end of the barbell; gifted kids from significantly disadvantaged backgrounds populate the other. So who’s missing?
It’s what Deerfield refers to as middle-income kids—the ones whose families qualify for some aid, but not a full ride. While Deerfield’s definition of “middle-income” is quite a bit higher than the national average, a far greater percentage of people fall into this income group than the very wealthy. Students from these families tend to be hard to attract, but their presence on campus is absolutely necessary, and they provide social cohesion between the very privileged and the very underprivileged. Falling between the haves and the have-nots, middle-income kids often make sure everyone keeps talking to each other and working together.
For Rob and Karen Hale, ensuring that those middle-income kids have the opportunity to attend Deerfield is a priority. The Hales have made a commitment to Deerfield as part of the Imagine Deerfield campaign, and when the campaign is complete, Hale Scholars will represent approximately ten percent of students receiving financial aid. Rob, a former Academy trustee, attended Deerfield in the early ’80s. A native of nearby Northampton, which was then a sleepy college town, he made a daily trek up to the Academy as a student.
Rob is happy to share the reasons for his dedication to the school. “I loved Deerfield,” he says. “It was and is a fantastic institution. I think we have the best grounds, the best faculty, and the best facilities among secondary schools.” Beyond that, Rob credits Deerfield for equipping him with “an unshakeable confidence,” something that has proved invaluable over the years, and he adds, “Deerfield opened my eyes to a different world—to an entirely different spectrum.” That being said, Rob Hale is also aware of the Academy’s challenges. “What the community lacks at times is diversity, and by that I don’t necessarily mean racial or gender diversity. I mean economic diversity.” Providing that diversity may sound like a social justice initiative, but it’s not. While the Deerfield community certainly does want to do good in the world, Rob says, “It’s really about providing every student who comes here with a better education.”
That philosophy is established by the Admission Office. At Deerfield, admission officers don’t pay attention to who applies for aid and who doesn’t. Ashley Laporte found this a comfort. “It was nice going through admissions knowing that money wasn’t going to be a factor in the process. It freed me up to be myself,” she says. Indeed, Gimbel explains that when applications are being reviewed and voted upon, the admission committee is essentially blind to an applicant’s need; students are evaluated on merit alone.
But the hard truth is that at some point, dollars and cents do enter into the equation. After what is often a grueling process for the admission team, final decisions of to whom to offer admission are made. Then the financial aid director reveals what the budget will look like. This past year was particularly difficult. “We were a million plus over our budget for new students,” Gimbel sighs. “We ended up wait-listing 27 potential students for financial aid reasons—that’s 27 students we had just voted to admit. It’s what we call the financial aid pull, and it’s probably the most painful two days of the year.” Those students are wait-listed, Gimbel says, rather than admitted without aid. “If we are going to admit a student,” she emphasizes, “we are also going to fund their need.”
Richard Bonanno balances the stark reality of the financial bottom line with the ideals of the school. To put it another way, he combats modern fiscal challenges within the context of Deerfield’s financial aid history. Headmaster Frank Boyden famously summed up Deerfield’s approach to aid by saying simply, “Pay what you can.” That phrase oversimplified matters even during Mr. Boyden’s day, however.
“When you go back to the ’20s and ’30s,” Bonanno says, “Mr. Boyden really did say, ‘Pay what you can.’ But things had changed dramatically by the end of his tenure, and now we have to have a very organized process, with agreed upon methodology, for assessing real need. The philosophy is still ‘Pay what you can,’ but I would rather say, ‘Pay what’s appropriate’!”
The Bottom Line
A healthy financial aid program answers this challenge. Obviously, the more financial aid there is to award, the larger the population who can benefit, and that fits Deerfield’s mission. “Deerfield goes to bat for a student that we think will be a good fit for the school,” Gimbel says. But the second, more subtle answer to the challenge lies in the fabric of the student body. Rob Hale is correct: Deerfield offers an education second to none, with dedicated, impressive faculty and top-notch facilities. But Pat Gimbel is also right: You can, in many middle-class communities, get an excellent education down the street at your local public school. What you will not find at those schools is a student body that hails from literally around the globe, from backgrounds as disparate as the crown prince of a Middle Eastern country to the youngest child of six from a family in the Bronx.
Or maybe an African-American child of a single mom from a small town in northern Vermont, like Ashley Laporte. Ironically, at Deerfield Ashley was exposed to more, not fewer, people who looked like her. “I had a unique experience as one of the only black students in my community in Vermont,” she says. There was an ever-present feeling of being . . . “just different.” Lily-white prep school stereotypes notwithstanding, Deerfield was an oasis of inclusion for Ashley. “I got to experience diversity at Deerfield. Of course I noticed there were students who shared my race, but it was also about being exposed to people who weren’t from the same kinds of places,” she says. Pat Gimbel underscores Ashley’s impressions. “We attract students from all over the world: inner-city kids, rural kids, suburban kids, kids from places that don’t know what a private school or independent school even really is.”
Let’s go back to that question we posed at the start: Who here is paying full freight, and who receives aid? Very few people on campus know the answer to that question for sure. Subsidized students do not participate in a special work program; they are not expected to compensate for their aid awards. Expectations of students do not change based on the level of their tuition payments. In fact, “The year after students graduate, we destroy their financial aid records,” says Bonanno. This is not to say, however, that students don’t make their own educated guesses. Even when they’re subtle, after all, social cues are strong. “I’d be lying if I said there was no sense of the haves and have-nots,” Ashley admits. “When you’re living with people, some things are hard to hide. You’re buying things for your dorm room, all your clothes, all your athletic gear.”
That being said, in some ways, even asking this question misses a crucial point. Having and not having? These questions may matter in the larger world. But one of the luckiest things about spending four years at Deerfield is that here, no one really cares who has what. “We’re in the middle of corn fields!” points out Ashley. “I learned during my first weekends at the school that social events did not revolve around money. In fact, most of them relied on being savvy in the Salvation Army so that you could find a sequined shirt to wear at the famous DeNunzio Disco!” In a list of priorities that includes traits like intelligence, personality, and athletic grace, money falls right down to the bottom. “Everyone appreciated the diversity of the student body. I think if you ask most people at Deerfield why they loved it, they might say classes were great or the sports were great, but most would say the people.”
And that’s the heart of it: When money is not an obstacle, Deerfield can pull together the most interesting and diverse group of students possible, which affects everyone on campus. If, as Pat Gimbel said, every student is subsidized, then the flip side of that coin is that each student benefits from every financial aid award. Some benefit directly, and indeed, some wouldn’t be at the school otherwise. But those students who have never had to fill out a financial aid application are benefiting just as surely as the direct recipients.
How does someone from northern Vermont develop a meaningful friendship with someone from southern California, at age 15 or 16? Unless they come to a place like Deerfield, it’s probably not going to happen. But it is during these formative years, before specific interests and, let’s face it, specific biases have had a chance to develop, when one is most open to new experiences and gaining empathy for other people’s challenges. There’s the spirited classroom discourse at ten o’clock in the morning, yes, but it goes beyond that. It’s also the spontaneous interactions that happen while putting on athletic gear at 3:30 in the afternoon. It’s the eye-opening discussions during dinner with nine other adolescents at a sit-down meal. It’s the impromptu, pajama-clad debates in the common room late at night. These are the times when kids talk freely about issues from their own countries, from their own backgrounds. And these conversations just can’t happen without a financial aid program that brings together a wide and varied group of people at such a young age.
Ashley Laporte puts it in more personal terms. “All of us, privileged or not, were learning to grow up. For every student from the inner city learning to live in the country and in an entirely different social scene, there was another student learning from their peers about what life outside of the bubble of privilege was like. We were all constantly forced out of our comfort zones on a daily basis.” A shared common purpose has a way of transcending all that. Rob Hale puts it this way: “The school has a way of making everyone equal, because people are saluted for their accomplishments—athletic, academic, whatever the case may be.” Even people with wildly different backgrounds—ethnically, geographically, racially, and yes, economically—can prove to be of like mind.••
Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in a number of publications, including Wondertime, Whole Living, and FamilyFun. She lives in Northampton, MA, with her husband and two daughters.