Opportunity Vanderbilt—A Transformative Effect

Provost Richard McCarty talks with first-year students and parents during move-in day
Provost Richard McCarty talks with first-year students and parents during move-in day

Thanks to the generosity of more than 1,300 donors, Opportunity Vanderbilt has exceeded its initial goal and raised $108.4 million, as of June 30, 2011. Never has our university placed a more urgent need before our alumni, parents and friends, and we have been overwhelmed by their response.

Today only Vanderbilt and five other major research universities (Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Stanford and Yale) are 100 percent need-blind in the admissions process, meet full demonstrated need for all students, meet that need without including need-based loans in the package, and have no income cutoffs or other limiting factors.

Eliminating student need-based loans from undergraduate financial aid packages has long been a vision of Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. This achievement was the final step after years of fighting to reduce undergraduate student indebtedness at Vanderbilt. During his time as provost from 2002 to 2008, Zeppos devoted considerable effort to this problem, and each year we were able to enhance funding for scholarships and grants in support of our undergraduates with demonstrated financial need. As recently as the late 1990s, our university was one of the national leaders in debt burden of its graduating seniors—an unfortunate distinction. In 2008, as we prepared for the public announcement of our new expanded aid program, the subprime mortgage crisis created a global financial meltdown that continues to impact us. As a grim reminder, on Sept. 29, 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its largest one-day drop ever: 778 points. The financial markets notwithstanding, Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust affirmed its commitment, and Chancellor Zeppos announced that Vanderbilt University would eliminate need-based loans from offers of financial aid for all undergraduates, beginning in fall 2009.

As I look back on the events of three years ago, I am reminded that leadership matters. Much of what we do on campus reflects our belief that a Vanderbilt education should be accessible to all eligible students regardless of family finances. Chancellor Zeppos and the Board of Trust were being true to a core principle of our university, despite the economic calamity that was taking shape around us.

Our goal was a challenging one: Create a dedicated endowment of $100 million to support our undergraduates with demonstrated financial need. This fundraising initiative, called Opportunity Vanderbilt, received a major boost in late 2008 with an anonymous gift of $20 million. This transformative gift marked a critical turning point in our fundraising efforts during the darkest time of the global recession, and we will be forever grateful for this remarkably generous support.

The case for this support has been made in a compelling way by our talented campaign leaders, Board of Trust members, undergraduate school deans and senior leadership, including Chancellor Zeppos. What an amazing collaboration to propel our university into the 21st century!

However, we are far from securing the endowment necessary to support the full financial aid needs of our talented undergraduates. More than 60 percent of Vanderbilt students receive some type of financial aid. Approximately 47 percent of our 6,800 undergraduates received some level of need-based financial aid last year, and 26 percent of the total cost was supported by existing endowment funds while 68 percent was covered from our operating budget. The situation is dramatically different at one of our peer institutions, Princeton University, where less than 20 percent of need-based financial aid comes from operating funds. Closing this gap in endowment coverage at Vanderbilt is a top priority, and we will continue to enlist the support of our alumni, parents and friends in this ambitious endeavor.

The demand for a Vanderbilt education is at an all-time high, and the Class of 2015 is our most talented ever. As provost, I am fortunate to see the impact of Opportunity Vanderbilt—in the lives of our students, in their engagement with our faculty, and in their outreach to society.

Access to a world-class education is the embodiment of the American dream, and I am proud to see it unfold on our campus. With your continued help, Opportunity Vanderbilt can ensure that the most talented students can continue to attend Vanderbilt and go on to transform our society.

Richard McCarty, Vanderbilt’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs since 2008, previously served seven years as dean of the College of Arts and Science.

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