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.
“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.”
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’!”