Closing doors: Small religious colleges struggle for survival

SHAWNEE, Okla. (RNS) – Duncan Tiemeyer chose St. Gregory’s University because he wanted a faith-established education that could teach him a lot more than how to succeed in a career.

The 550-student Catholic liberal arts college or university in Oklahoma traces its roots to French monks who moved to Indian Territory in 1875, intent on growing the bodies, thoughts and souls of Native American and settler children.

“Here, we happen to be taught not merely to concentrate on our five-year plan but also our 100-season plan and our 500-year plan,” said Tiemeyer, 22, a good senior business and theology significant from Houston. “What are we preparing for? Are we living our lives in a manner that is getting us to the next life? Are we likely to be ready to go to heaven?”

However, the brand of education offered by St. Gregory’s – where Benedictine monks still pray multiple instances daily in a chapel beside a cemetery filled with the continues to be of their predecessors – will come to an abrupt halt at the fall semester’s end.

“It’s simply a tragic and sad damage, and I’m grieving for our pupils and faculty and staff who are working through this damage,” said St. Gregory’s President Michael A. Scaperlanda.

The financially strapped Roman Catholic institution, 40 miles east of Oklahoma City, is just the latest small religious college or university to close in an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace.

Grace University, a good Christian college in Omaha, Neb., will end procedures in-may, doomed by fiscal and enrollment challenges.

Marygrove College, a Catholic liberal arts organization in Detroit, will turn off its undergraduate programs in December.

Catholic-affiliated Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., didn’t reopen this fall.

“The transition from a mom-and-pop shop to a niche boutique has been problematic for various colleges,” Scaperlanda said. “In the pre-Wal-Mart universe, mom-and-pop shops could survive and thrive. In the Wal-Mart universe, you need to have a niche marketplace and very advanced business practices, and I think that has been problematic for many little Christian universities, incorporating St. Gregory’s.”

Roughly one-third of the tiny private colleges rated by Moody’s Investors Service made operating deficits in 2016, a rise from 20 percent in 2013, MarketWatch reported in June.

A major reason, according to the financial information website: a record level of tuition discount rates, “a practice that’s financially riskier for little colleges that contain fewer sources of income to rely on.”

A lot more than 60 percent of Catholic universities in the U.S. have less than 2,500 pupils, and most have “hardly any in the way of fiscal endowment,” explained Paula Moore, vice president of exterior relations for the Washington, D.C.-established Association of Catholic Universites and colleges.

“Particularly since the beginning of the Great Recession of 2007, many ACCU-member colleges and universities have made ongoing commitments to ensure the accessibility of high-quality Catholic education by simply holding tuition increases at a complete minimum and by increasing the quantity of school funding for students,” Moore said in an email.

In 1956, 300 Catholic colleges and universities served roughly 400,000 students across the nation, according to Moore. Today, that total is normally nearer to 200 institutions, but with double the overall enrollment, she reported.

“What that tells us broadly is that there’s been a certain level of contraction among our colleges,” Moore added, “but that they continue to innovate and look for methods to serve even increased numbers of students.”

Within Oklahoma, St. Gregory’s experienced hoped a $12.5 million rural development loan from the Citizen Potawatomi Country – made possible thanks to federal money dispersed to the tribe – would keep it alive.

To qualify for the loan, the earlier State’s just Catholic university also de-annexed from Shawnee, a city of 31,000, to meet the requirement of being situated in a rural area. Nevertheless, the U.S. Section of Agriculture denied the bank loan, expressing St. Gregory’s wasn’t in a rural region at the time of the previous U.S. Census.

“Once the bank loan was denied, we were basically out of funds, and we had a need to let our pupils find new homes quickly,” the university president said. “We couldn’t delay. There was really virtually no time to appeal your choice of the USDA,” Scaperlanda said.

As religious colleges die, it’s society that loses out, he added.

“Students that visit a Catholic or a good Protestant or perhaps a Jewish or Islamic university – some of those faith-basis universities – have a good framework for life and can see their role as an accountant or a good nurse within the context of a good deeper meaning,” he said.

St. Gregory’s monks could keep serving the Catholic network, explained the Rev. Lawrence Stasyszen, abbot and chancellor.

“We maintain our dedication to pray for all who’ve attended and supported St. Gregory’s over the years and will explore new means of contributing to the tradition of Oklahoma,” Stasyszen explained in a statement.

Reports of the university’s closing – announced this month – brought shock and tears on campus, where a Christian cross sits atop the landmark Benedictine Hall, a castlelike framework built a century ago.

“I’ve been blessed with the understanding that nothing is beyond God’s providence,” said Emilia Lilly Bermudez, St. Gregory’s dean of pupils.

“I have to maintain calm for the sake of the students, but it’s not at all something that I have to fake,” added Bermudez, an immigrant from El Salvador and graduate of Catholic-affiliated Ave Maria University in Florida.

In its last weeks, the university is focusing on helping students find new educational homes, from Oklahoma Baptist University just down the street to Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, a Catholic institution 1,100 miles away.

Both those universities – and numerous others, both public and private – have sent recruiters to St. Gregory’s.

As lifestyle lessons go, this one is heartbreaking for pupils – but it also can be a faith builder, said Meg Hunter-Kilmer, St. Gregory’s on-campus missionary.

“It’s really a tragic thing for them to lose their home and the future that they had planned for themselves, but we’ve merely tried to remind them that this is lifestyle,” said Hunter-Kilmer, a good graduate of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. “This specifically doesn’t happen very often, but your plans being ruined happens continuously.

“We have to figure out how to move on, ways to get up, how exactly to trust that the Lord is leading whether or not we may see where in fact the pillar of fire and the cloud happen to be acquiring us,” she added, discussing how the book of Exodus describes God guiding the Israelites’ travels.

Tiemeyer, the Student Authorities Association’s president, has created a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $15,000 to greatly help the 110 faculty and workers losing their jobs before Christmas.

He’s unsure of his own future.

Tiemeyer has a sufficient amount of credits to graduate with his business degree. But he’s four lessons brief of completing his theology significant. While considering whether to become priest, he has applied to go to seminary through the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.

“We’ll find if that’s what God desires,” Tiemeyer said.

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