A momentous decision

Trustees usher in a new era with commitment to need-blind admissions.

February 8, 2022

On the afternoon of October 22, 2021, moments after voting to admit students without consideration of their ability to pay tuition, Exeter’s Trustees rose from their seats to applaud the moment, the generosity of the Exeter community, and the hard work that had made the decision possible.

Their spontaneous celebration was understandable. Rarely in the Academy’s history have the Trustees been called upon to make such a weighty decision. Just as Edward Harkness’ gift inspired a reimagining of our pedagogy, and the opening of our doors to coeducation transformed the institution, a vote to formally commit to “need-blind” admissions is similarly groundbreaking.

The Trustees’ decision is the first official commitment since the school began charging a fee for tuition in 1809, that cost is no longer a barrier to any qualified student who dreams of attending Phillips Exeter Academy — a decisive step toward becoming the community the found-ers envisioned.

Days after that momentous vote, Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08 and Morgan Sze ’83; P’19, P’22, P’25, president of the Trustees, shared the news in a joint statement to the Academy community: “John and Elizabeth Phillips made a commitment that continues to serve as one of our core values: ‘[The Academy] shall ever be equally open to youth of requisite qualifications from every quarter,’” Rawson and Sze wrote in an email to students, employees, alumni and parents.

Today, we renew our commitment to youth from every quarter.”
Principal Bill Rawson '71, P'08

“The commitment expressed in our Deed of Gift ensures that all our students, regardless of economic circumstances, are not only able to attend but also know they belong at Exeter. Financial aid makes it possible for students from ‘every quarter’ to join the Academy community and learn, lead and thrive here. Today, we renew our commitment to youth from every quarter.”

The historic decision came after Exeter donors over the past two years committed more than $90 million in new endowment for financial aid. Further support will be needed to sustain the commitment and fundraising for financial aid will continue to be a priority.

“From our conversations with alumni around the world, from Boston to Beijing, from London to LA, we hear consistently that one of the overarching priorities for the Academy — one of the values our alumni hold most highly — is the commitment to youth from every quarter — the ideal that finances should not be a barrier to students,” says Morgan Dudley ’77, Exeter’s director of institutional advancement. “The opportunity to focus our outreach and engagement efforts on becoming need-blind in admissions is deeply meaningful to every member of the Exeter community.”

Richard (Rick) L. Smith ’66 is one of those alumni for whom need-blind admissions resonates. Smith, who received financial aid to attend the Academy, has been a consistent Exeter donor and volunteer since his graduation, when he sent Exeter Principal Richard Day a letter and a $5 contribution to the school’s Christmas Fund.

“My first contribution to the Christmas Fund is small,” he wrote. “My interest in Exeter, however, is not small.” Smith vowed in that letter to help Exeter always have

“the resources to attract the people it needs to maintain a community marked by excellence.” More than 50 years later, Smith continues to live up to his promise, step-ping forward as one of the first Exonians to support new endowment for financial aid to make need-blind possible.

“It’s a very positive message and provides a greater level of encouragement to students and families seeking financial aid,” says Smith, a former trustee. “It also emphasizes the Academy’s commitment to being a diverse and equitable institution.”

A history of support

Exeter has a long tradition of remaining accessible to applicants of all means. In 1947, the school launched a $5 million campaign to limit tuition increases and “preserve the essential character” of the Academy, according to then-president of the Trustees Thomas Lamont, and enroll the most deserving and talented students from all over the country — not just those who can afford tuition.

The stories of Director of Scholarships H. Hamilton “Hammy” Bissell ’29 barnstorming around the Midwest in the 1950s in search of qualified students are Exeter legend. More than 800 of “Hammy’s boys” attended PEA through the school’s financial support.

“The opportunity to focus our outreach and engagement efforts on becoming need-blind in admissions is deeply meaningful to every member of the Exeter community.”
Morgan Dudley '77, director of institutional advancement

Those efforts have only grown over time. In 1980, the percentage of need-based financial aid students at Exeter was 26%. Today it is 44%. The Academy awards more than $25 million in financial assistance to its students each year; the largest distribution of endowment income is designated to financial aid.

In 2006, Exeter temporarily achieved need-blind in practice if not official policy, admitting three successive incoming classes regardless of means. A global financial crisis forced the school to curtail the effort in 2009 while pledging to remain free to those qualified students whose family income was $75,000 or less and to meet 100% of the demonstrated need of every admitted student.

Now, the school has formally committed to a need-blind admissions system going forward.

The Exeter community hailed the milestone and the Academy’s commitment to making an Exeter education accessible. “Financial aid at a comprehensive level was critical to my own ability to be one of ‘Hammy’s boys,’” wrote Jim Peterson ’63, “an experience that was life-shaping both for me and my family.”

“We will be forever grateful for our son’s full scholar-ship to attend Exeter for a postgrad year,” Laurie Easton Parker P’11 said. “Without the financial aid, that superior education would have been out of reach for our family. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts!”

Added Jim Rogers ’63; P’05, a former president of the Trustees: “This is wonderful news and such an important and fitting milestone for PEA.”

Rawson and Sze expressed appreciation for the legacy of philanthropy at Exeter that inspired the initiative. “It is humbling to consider the generations of Exonians who have come forward over the years to support the school, often inspired by the gratitude they felt for the assistance they received themselves,” they wrote. “It is equally humbling to contemplate the generosity that will support our school and our commitment to youth from every quarter in years to come.”

Editor's note: This feature first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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