Mercyhurst College and St. Gregory Parish School have joined forces in a new plan that they hope will serve as a model in helping to stem the tide of declining parochial school enrollments while rewarding a K-16 commitment to Catholic education.
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” will be offered to students when they enroll in Level 1 (Grades 1 and 2) at St. Gregory’s School. Those students who go on to graduate from St. Gregory’s must next gain admittance and complete four years at Mercyhurst Preparatory School, a coed Catholic high school that, like Mercyhurst College, was founded in Erie by the Sisters of Mercy. Finally, students on the K-16 track who are accepted at Mercyhurst College will qualify for the annual 75 percent tuition reduction.
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 ... but I haven’t heard of anyone doing a tuition reduction model like Mercyhurst,” Ristau said.
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,” Belfiore said. “We are hoping that this new scholarship will go one step further in actually growing the school’s enrollment. We’re also hoping that this model will be accepted by other colleges that will find a way to utilize it."