As rising costs and changing demographics take their toll on Catholic schools nationwide, including the Diocese of Erie where declining enrollments have forced school mergers and outright closings in recent years, finding creative solutions to the crisis has taken on a whole new urgency.
Mercyhurst has emerged as one of the first Catholic colleges in the country to approach the problem at all levels, kindergarten through college, by introducing a unique scholarship program that ultimately will provide a 75 percent reduction in tuition to qualifying students.
Beginning this fall, the “St. Gregory-Mercy Scholarship”
The discount would be applied to the balance owed the college for tuition and fees after subtracting all other need-based and merit-based financial aid for which the student may be eligible. For example, if annual tuition and fees are $25,000 and the student qualifies for $12,000 in financial aid, the balance owed would be $13,000. The scholarship would be valued at 75 percent of $13,000 or $9,750, and the student would owe the college $3,250.
“Our schools are one of the most effective ways to pass on Catholic traditions, and as a college that prides itself on its Catholic identify and Mercy heritage, we recognize the significance of that allegiance and embrace this opportunity to help keep Catholic education alive and vibrant in our community,” said Mercyhurst President Dr. Thomas J. Gamble in announcing the new program.
Dr. Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, said she believes Mercyhurst’s new program is precedent-setting.
“We have situations where colleges may adopt a struggling local school and provide professional support, or step in to help schools develop better budgets; they’re all wonderful models, but I haven’t heard of anyone doing a tuition reduction model like Mercyhurst. It’s very exciting,” Ristau said.
Her sentiments were echoed by Dr. Richard A. Yanikoski, president and CEO
of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, who added, “This is a very creative program; I know of no other like it in the country.”
Mercyhurst elected to partner with St. Gregory’s, a small rural elementary school enrolling 92 students in neighboring North East, Pa., because of a longstanding relationship that dates back to 2004. At that time, Mercyhurst’s vice president for academic affairs, Dr. Phillip Belfiore, recommended using multi-age classrooms at St. Gregory’s to prevent it from becoming yet another parochial school casualty. Grades 1 and 2 were combined into Level 1, grades 3 and 4 became Level 2, and so on.
Belfiore said research shows that multi-age classrooms are sound pedagogically and, although some permanent teaching jobs were initially lost, the move reduced expenses and stabilized enrollment, effectively saving the school. Meanwhile, four Mercyhurst graduate assistants with teaching certification were hired to provide teaching support in the multi-age classrooms, a relationship that continues today, according to St. Gregory’s principal Nancy Pierce.
Besides the cost savings, Pierce said the advantage of employing graduate assistants is that they work alongside the school’s permanent faculty and bring an abundance of “fresh, new ideas” to the classroom.
“Five years ago, we put our resources together to stabilize St. Gregory’s,”
The Rev. Nicholas J. Rouch, the Erie Diocese’s Vicar for Education, said he, too, is optimistic about the program’s possibilities. “What I like is that it encourages continuity in Catholic education and also recognizes the sacrifices made by parents who remain committed to a Catholic education K-16,” he said.
Belfiore said that before the program’s fall launch, the respective partners expect to iron out details, including optimal enrollment in the program.
Further, added the Rev. David Prenatt, pastor of St. Gregory’s Parish, “Our parish is in the process of exploring ways to expand our relationship with the college and their students. This commitment by Mercyhurst College gives tremendous testimony to the desire of its administration to be united with parish, school and community, rather than isolated.”
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Mercyhurst College, founded in 1926 by the Sisters of Mercy, is a fully accredited, four-year, Catholic comprehensive institution, in Erie, Pennsylvania. The college offers more than 100 majors, minors and concentrations, as well as unique post baccalaureate advanced certificate programs and six master’s degree programs. In addition, Mercyhurst provides certificate and associates degree programs at branch campuses in North East, Girard and Corry, Pennsylvania. Learn more at http://www.mercyhurst.edu.