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SI's Fastest Growing University

Friday, October 14, 2016

St. John’s University on Staten Island may sit atop a hill — Grymes Hill, to be precise — but a historic slash in the cost of tuition and new partnerships with area high schools are insuring that the current generation of Staten Island high school graduates will have a clear pathway to a private Catholic university education at a cost their families can manage.

“We don’t want to be the university on the hill,” says Dr. James O’Keefe, vice provost. “We don’t want a moat. We want to tear down the drawbridge and walls, and the best way to do that is through tuition value.” Tuition at the Staten Island campus of St. John’s dropped to $27,500 for the academic year 2015-2016. It remains frozen for 2016-2017. That coupled with outreach to area high schools has created the highest enrollment at St. John’s Staten Island campus in the last 16 years — an increase of 104 students, or 46 percent. Dr. O’Keefe calls this rise “a giant exclamation point that St. John’s is back.”

According to Dr. O’Keefe, every student at St. John’s Staten Island receives some sort of financial aid, and the school offers an array of scholarships that bring the tuition down to “very manageable levels.” Since about 90 percent of students at the Staten Island campus are commuters, and do not pay for room and board, their cost for attending a private Catholic university is closer to that of a public university.

Dr. Robert Fanuzzi, associate provost and director of civic engagement, credits “academic leadership dedicated to what the community needs” for the positive changes. According to him, smaller units of large universities often are more community based and therefore better able to recognize and meet the community’s needs. In this case, leaders at St. John’s Staten Island recognized that “our graduates produce jobs in New York City, in fields such as accounting, criminal justice, psychology, and communications, and we see ourselves as linking our students to those graduates and their jobs. However, they also recognized that escalating tuition costs — a nationwide trend for the last 20 years — had created a barrier between the university and the students it has historically served: children of immigrant families and first-generation college students.

But, the motivation goes beyond the economic realities. St. John’s was founded in 1870 by the Vincentian Community, priests and brothers who followed St. Vincent DePaul, a 17th century French priest who taught that one finds oneself and God through service to others. “We really understand connection to the community as part of our Catholic mission,” Dr. Fanuzzi says. “This is a social justice issue. College cannot be out of bounds for middle- and working-class families.”

A unique partnership program creates an academic bridge for high school students — not just to the university but to a future career. St. John’s Early Start Afterschool Academy allows students to take courses in their majors or chosen fields of study — taught by professors at the university — while they are still in high school. These courses feature customized advanced coursework for students, not general education. Students receive the equivalent of an introductory-level class in a major, such as criminal justice, hospitality, business law, or physics. “Because we teach in student’s areas of academic and professional interest, we give students a real taste of where their future could lead them,” Dr. Fanuzzi says. Students also receive financial support. Early Start students pay $325 to take a transferable three-credit course, but they also receive a $2,000 grant, each year for up to four years, that they attend the university.

St. John’s always is expanding its high school partnerships. For one, it sends faculty members as emissaries into the community. St. John’s professors visit area high schools as guest lecturers and pave the way for students to visit the university. St. John’s professors also share their expertise with high school students in real-life, hands-on ways. For example, Dr. William Reisel, professor of management, has invited Susan Wagner High School’s Academy of Finance to join his partnership with Central Family Life Center, one of the North Shore’s leading nonprofits. “Because we are community-based, we are always able to find ways for high school students to join the St. John’s network and family,” Dr. Fanuzzi says.

While the Staten Island campus of St. John’s is rooted in and responsive to the local community, its students are part of a major Catholic university with a global presence. St. John’s is home to 16,210 undergraduate and 4,671 graduate students and 1,471 faculty members. In addition to the main Queens and the Staten Island campuses, there is a Manhattan campus and an academic center in Oakdale, Long Island. International campuses are located in Paris, and Rome, and the school offers a plethora of faculty exchange and study abroad programs. “We open up students to a world beyond their imagining,” says Dr. O’Keefe. “A global university has the perfect home on Staten Island.”

Bringing this wider world to those who live in St. John’s Staten Island’s backyard is what the recent initiatives are all about. “St. John’s takes seriously the escalating cost of higher education,” Dr. Fanuzzi says. “We drew a line in the sand and at a local level reversed a national trend. Through the tuition cut, the Early Start program, and our high school partnerships we have reached out to the community and the community is responding. It is becoming a very close relationship,” he adds.

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