Financial Aid: An Act Of Love

Frank Vellaccio

When I was asked to contribute to this occasional series of white papers I eagerly agreed. My only reservation was my fear of resurrecting the jokes that haunted my past concerning the Vallachi Papers by creating a Vellaccio Paper. While there is much I could talk to you about, Father McFarland asked that I spend at least some time on the topic of financial aid. This makes sense for several reasons. First, I have had the Office of Financial Aid reporting to me for twenty years. Second, aid is of critical importance to the College for without it many of our students would not be able to attend the Cross. But as important as access and affordability are to the mission of Holy Cross, I doubted most of you would be interested in a lengthy description of need analysis, the pros or cons of using aid as a means of enticement as well as access and/or how today aid is seen by some as an entitlement or discount rather than assistance. 

I want to begin, therefore, by taking the somewhat unorthodox approach of sharing a poem with you. It was written by Philip Larkin in 1955 and it is titled Church Going. This poem is frequently taught at Holy Cross in our Critical Reading and Writing Course. It is unusual in that the narrator is an active participant in the poem and as the poem progresses so does the narrator's perspective. But before I say more please read it. I think you will find it helpful if you read it out loud at least once - I know I did. 


Phillip Larkin - Church Going
Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation -- marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these -- for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.



I wish now we weren't many miles away but in the same living room, in soft chairs, comfortable, relaxed and eager to converse. First and foremost we could revel and share in the beauty of this work, much as we would a Cape sunset or a fine wine. Perhaps we would have pulled out a dictionary to realize "simples" are medicinal herbs and "frowsty" means smelly. Most of all our understanding of the poem would undoubtedly be enhanced by our interchange and shared attempt at finding in it its revelation. I hope you can have this experience with your spouse, a child, parent or friend. There are so many times when our moments together are wasted that it is important to create times of meaning for ourselves and others. Of course I don't mean to suggest that you have to love the poem as I do only that such things are worth looking at and talking about. 

The first five stanzas are quite bleak. The narrator's reverence of the church he is visiting is "awkward" and after a brief scrutiny he judges "the place was not worth stopping for."  A church unfortunately not unlike all the rest he often stops at. He reflects on the possible obsolescence of churches suggesting they may even be someday avoided as "unlucky places."  Some might become museums and some simply vacated to be overrun by vegetation and visited by "dubious women" holding on to superstitions which "like belief, must die."  

A reader might come to the conclusion that this section of the poem is far too long. But the fact that he brings us through this lengthy search for meaning gives more power to his resolution at the end when he concludes that he does in fact find himself in "a serious house on serious earth." A place it pleases him "to stand in silence." While some could judge the ending too vague or subtle it is for me a powerful recognition, at the conclusion of his long journey, of "a hunger in himself" to be "more serious," a hunger that has repeatedly drawn him to "serious houses" like this. For me this is his recognition of the Transcendent and its relationship to the church he finds himself in. In the end his hunger can only be fed by his relationship to God.

I find this poem particularly relevant today given the crisis in the Church. I can easily imagine people on the one hand wondering: “When churches fall completely out of use What we shall turn them into” and on the other having a renewed need and desire for them and for the faith we practice within them.

The end of the poem is for the reader a beginning for we are left with many questions to ponder. What happens in a place that assists us in our pursuit of wisdom?  What is meant by “a serious house on serious ground?”   I find that in attempting to answer these questions and others the poem proposes, the poem becomes meaningful to my relationship to the “special shell” I have worked at for thirty years, the College of the Holy Cross. For 


                                  "A serious house on serious earth it is,
                                    In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
                                    Are recognised, and robed as destinies."



The place the narrator comes to in his recognition of Church is where we should be in our understanding of Holy Cross for it is both a place that is “proper to grow wise in” and one in which we are called to undergo a transformation in our relationship to ourselves and to God. For me this is the core duality of Holy Cross’ mission.

I fear it is seldom fully understood or appreciated by the many who “step inside” and visit the Cross. One can look around noticing “the roof looks almost new”, checking out the coffee shop, the new residence hall, the flowers, the wireless network, the football schedule, the exercise machines and the food but how many see beyond these things to those that matter?  What matters at Holy Cross is the learning that goes on there. Like the church in the poem, the significance of Holy Cross resides not in the wood or brick but in the interaction of people that are drawn to it. What we do is not as much a business as a vocation. It is the vocation of bringing meaning into young people’s lives. It is not enough to try to make students happy; it is our purpose to try to make them good and to do so we have to create a hunger in them to be more serious and to then satisfy that hunger.

It is as easy in higher education as it is in life to follow wants rather than needs and to do what is popular rather than what is right. To make the right choices you must have the right bearings and a clear understanding of your values. As I have begun the task given to me by Father McFarland of helping the College develop a strategic plan that will bring us to the end of the present Campaign and toward the start of the next, I am more than ever aware of the importance of remaining true to the ideals of Jesuit education. This is what makes our place serious and what nurtures in our students that sense of revelation the narrator comes to in his church visit.

Let me go now from a poem to a lyric. It is a song called A Home written and sung by, of all groups, the Dixie Chicks. To some this may be going from the sublime to the ridiculous but inspiration can be found in many places. In the song, a young woman laments that rather than follow her heart and marry the man she loved, she “listened to her so-called friends quick to advise” and her pride. As a result she sings:


                                                    Not a night goes by
                                                    I don't dream of wandering
                                                    Through the home that might have been...
                                                    Now every day I wake again
                                                    In a house that might have been
                                                    A home



I find the phrase “the home that might have been” both haunting and poignant. It hit a cord with me because I think daily about the future of Holy Cross and I never want to think of Holy Cross as becoming the College “that might have been.” I know Holy Cross can and will avoid this fate by passionate hard work and a relentless adherence to the ideals of Jesuit education.

I also like the distinction made in the song between a house and home – a distinction not unlike what I see between secular colleges and Holy Cross. The component present in abundance in a home that is absent in a house is love. Now to some it may sound overly dramatic and emotional to talk of love when referring to a College. But Catholicism is based on the trinity of love: love of God, love of self, and love of others. As a result love is at the very heart of Jesuit education and therefore at the heart of Holy Cross. 

Now what does this all have to do with financial aid?  I admit neither Larkin nor the Dixie Chicks have given you a greater understanding of the rules that govern federal methodology or the requirements for a Pell grant or whether home equity should be used in the determination of a need package. But they do relate to how and why we administer aid: we believe Holy Cross, like a church, to be a very special place - one that needs to be and should be accessible to anyone qualified to attend and we see aid as an act of love. One can get so pragmatic and mechanical about aid that it is easy to forget that aid is truly a gift given to help a person in need. It is the joy of looking into the eyes of a child no matter what color, shape or size and knowing that if they are talented and work hard they will have the opportunity to grow intellectually and spiritually in the finest environment in the world to do so-Holy Cross.

While a house becomes a home with love a College more accurately becomes a community. Robert Bellah in his renowned book, Habits of the Heart says a real community should be thought of as “a community of memory” and as such it “does not forget its past.”  He goes on to say “In order not to forget that past, a community is involved in retelling its story, its collective narrative, and in so doing, it offers examples of the men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of community. These stories of collective history and exemplary individuals are an important part of the tradition that is so central to a community of memory.”  Our stories are filled with students who were given a helping hand to attend Holy Cross and with those men and women who through their generosity gave that helping hand.

With this as background, there are a number of facts about financial aid at Holy Cross worth knowing.

  1. We accept students blind of need. This means we do not take into account a family’s ability to pay in the decision whether to accept or deny a student.
  2. We meet the need of every student who accepts admission to Holy Cross using a methodology consistent with most selective colleges and universities.
  3. $27M in total financial aid is administered to ~50% of our students. Holy Cross provides ~$23M of the overall expenditure with the difference funded by Federal, State and other external resources. 
  4. 88% of the $23M of Holy Cross aid given is done so on the basis of need and twelve percent solely on the basis of merit.
  5. Approximately 25% of our endowment (over $100M) is earmarked for general use or restricted scholarship. This contributes ~$4.5M toward the $23M spent each year.
  6. Most students on aid receive a subsidized Stafford loan, a work-study job and a Holy Cross grant.
  7. Students receiving financial aid from Holy Cross graduate on average with a debt of ~$20,000 in subsidized Federal Loans.

I could go on since there is no limit to the amount of information and data concerning financial aid. The two most important factors to understanding the use and need of aid, however, are the value assigned by parents and students to a Holy Cross education and the ratio of the rate at which tuition increases over the rate at which parental income increases. These translate into desirability which should correlate with worth and affordability which should correlate with cost.

Of course the best case scenario is to be considered worth it by those who can afford it and affordable by those who cannot. There is no other product in the world that attempts this. Imagine the manufacturer of Mercedes Benz automobiles, after convincing you in ads they are the fastest, most comfortable and safest cars on the road, adjusting the price depending on your ability to pay. They are not likely to do this since they are in the business of making a good car in order to make the greatest profit. We do, however, since we are in the vocation of making a good person in order to make a better world. 

There are many trappings that are now a standard part of a highly selective residential liberal arts college that are not essential to the ideals of Jesuit education. These have driven higher education into a spiral of increasing demands and increasing costs. It is hard to ignore these market drivers and remain competitive. But while it is difficult it is not impossible to prioritize in ways that strengthen our mission as a Jesuit college. We do so by holding the fair administration of aid to all our needy students as our highest priority. We ask our benefactors to do so as well. Without your help our help will fall short.

The value and worth of Holy Cross resides in the fact that we are; a serious place on serious ground, a place to grow wise in, a place that is, what it might have been, a home, a community. Our affordability arises out of love. A love that recognizes to help one is to help many.

Thank you for all you do to recognize and support our efforts. God bless you.