Students at Marian University take part in a classroom discussion. The school, located in Fond du Lac, Wis., has two programs to help make tuition more affordable. Courtesy of Marian University

Last year, the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., kicked off a program that offers free room and board to graduates of Catholic high schools — a qualification stipulated by the donors funding the scholarships. This year, about 50 of the incoming freshmen are eligible, and they’re coming from all over the country. 

Father James Patrick Shea, president of U-Mary, has met students from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Arizona, Rhode Island and other states, who without the free room and board might not have considered studying in North Dakota. 

“It has certainly increased the number of Catholic high school students who go to the university, and it has significantly increased the diversity geographically,” he said. 

U-Mary has another goal with that program — to make Catholic higher education more desirable by making the experience more affordable. 

“Some people think that only rich kids go to private schools,” Father Shea said. “That’s a stereotype, but it’s not true. Very often parents make tremendous sacrifices for their children to have a Catholic education, and we want to acknowledge that.” 

U-Mary, founded by the Benedictine Sisters of the Annunciation, follows suit with other colleges and universities that woo students with traditional academic and needs-based scholarships. But the new program is different, and promoting Catholic education by offering free room and board is a good fit for a state that has only four Catholic schools and one Catholic college. 

“I spent the early years of my priesthood teaching in Catholic schools, and Catholic colleges are hungry for these students who come from an atmosphere that is vibrant and filled with faith,” Father Shea said. “Our donors who came forward believe in Catholic education and wanted to fund it. There’s a strong support here for Catholic schools, and the parents of the students who go to them really have to make a substantial commitment. There are students who drive an hour and a half one way just to go to school.” 

Tuition at U-Mary is $13,200 for undergraduates, the most that program participants would pay. Having free room and board saves them about $6,000, but with other scholarships and financial aid, the reduction may be even more. 

“If you get a higher academic or athletic scholarship, then you would take that scholarship instead,” Father Shea told OSV. “And if you are not a graduate of a Catholic high school, with other school and institutional aid, you could easily get as much as if not more than students in the program.” 

U-Mary students also can use the program benefits if they want to study on the new campus in Rome. 

“The tuition, room and board, and all the scholarships are the same on our Rome campus,” he said. “All the student needs is a plane ticket.” 

Seton Scholars

Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa., gives away eight four-year full tuition Seton Scholar awards annually, two each in humanities, visual and performing arts, natural and health sciences and social sciences. The scholarships are based on academic merit and applicant essays, and are worth more than an $100,000. 

Regina Solomond of Wexford, Pa., was sitting in her high school math class last spring when her whole family walked into the room for the traditional surprise presentation. 

“Then the Seton Hill admissions counselor came in holding a big check,” she said. 

Solomond, a freshman English major, has the first year covered for room and board and other expenses. 

“Eventually, I’ll have to take out some loans,” she told OSV. “And I think I would have come here even without the scholarship. It was one of my top schools, and so far, I love it here. A Catholic education is important because you can stay firm in your beliefs while you are away from home.” 

Greg Kerestan of Greensburg was chosen a Seton Scholar four years ago and is now a senior majoring in English and theater. 

“I was looking at Seton Hill because of the program, and I was looking at two other Catholic colleges in Pennsylvania,” he said. “Without the scholarship here, I would have had to take out a lot of student loans, and living expenses would have been tighter.” 

Seton Hill tuition is currently $27,654 a year, plus fees and around $10,000 for room and board. Like in most private schools, that’s not final. 

“Approximately 95 percent of our undergraduates receive some form of financial aid,” Kary Coleman Hazen, director of media relations, said. “The average institutional package in 2010-11, which includes federal, state and Seton Hill scholarships, was $18,900 for a full-time traditional undergraduate student. That does not include loans.” 

Getting a jump-start

Other colleges are sweetening the pot through partnerships with Catholic high schools, or by offering online, evening and weekend classes that enable nontraditional students to live off campus and hold down jobs. Studying on-line also cuts commuter costs, and fast-track schedules lead to earlier graduation and therefore fewer semester expenses. 

At Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., the School of New Dimensions has accelerated degrees and blended courses for select undergraduate and graduate studies, team based collaborative learning, and a full online MBA program. 

St. Catharine College in St. Catharine, Ky., gives high school students in the Washington County School System a two-year jump-start on their college education. Through partnerships with a number of sources, including the Kentucky Department of Education, students in the Early College Program can get a two-year degree in liberal arts or early childhood education at the same time that they graduate from high school. The program also provides wraparound services so that students get the most benefit from their early post-secondary school experiences. 

Increasing opportunities

Tuition is $22,090 at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wis., plus nearly $6,000 annually in room and board. Two programs there benefit targeted students. One that was initiated last month increases Catholic education opportunities through a partnership between the university and St. Mary Springs Academy. Phase One is named after Sister of St. Agnes Judith Schmidt, who has been involved in both institutions. 

“In the first component, St. Mary Springs High School graduates who are accepted through our normal admission process can attend Marian University at a 50 percent discount,” Marian President Steven DiSalvo said. “The only caveat is that they will have attended St. Mary Springs for at least two years.” 

The second component offers half off continuing education benefits for full-time academy staff who want to advance their degrees at the university. The third component is an employee benefit for dependent children so that the children of the university staff get a 50 percent discount for attending the academy, and vice versa. 

“The reason for this is to promote private Catholic education from a K-16 model,” DiSalvo said. “We want to make sure that if students got into the system at the academy, they could continue at a reasonable cost.” 

The Working Families Grant Program was started 10 years ago and is funded by an anonymous donor and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Agnes, sponsors of both the university and the academy. The results-oriented program helps low-income single parents to improve their lives and the lives of their children by helping the parents (mostly mothers) to graduate from college.  

So far, 84 students have graduated, 32 with honors, and 10 have gone on for master’s degrees. The program has a 93 percent retention rate, compared with a national average of 70 percent, DiSalvo told OSV. 

The program is not a hand-out. Students are expected to apply for grants and scholarships and to become involved in any outside programs, like housing subsidies, that they are eligible for. They also make a commitment to volunteer in the community. In exchange, they can receive up to $23,000 that helps with tuition, housing, food and child care. 

The totally inclusive program helps to break down barriers that might prevent a working mom from being able to go to school to get a degree. It also meets enough needs that many students don’t need to work while they focus on their education. 

“The program helps to break the cycle of poverty and makes individuals productive members of society,” DiSalvo said. “This is the supreme example of Catholic social justice because this is not only caring for the individual, but this is doing good at every possible level. We are providing the education. We are caring for the family and giving back to the community. It really encompasses all of what we are about not only as an institution, but also as a faith-based community.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.