St. Catharine College to close after 85 years

Christian Johnson hugged professor Peggy Tillman after St. Catharine College's graduation ceremony May 14. (Photo Special to The Record)

Christian Johnson hugged professor Peggy Tillman after St. Catharine College’s graduation ceremony May 14. (Photo Special to The Record)

By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor
SPRINGFIELD, Ky. — Citing insurmountable challenges, including a decline in overall enrollment and high debt, St. Catharine College (SCC) trustee John Turner announced June 1 that the school will close in July.

Summer classes and camps at the college in Washington Co. will proceed as scheduled, according to the announcement, but classes will not resume in the fall of 2016.

“It is with great sadness that I announce today, after exploring all possible options, the board of Trustees has determined the challenges facing St. Catharine are insurmountable and we will be closing the college at the end of July,” Turner said in a press release issued by the school.

St.CatharineCollegelogo-wSt. Catharine was established in 1931 by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, now the Dominican Sisters of Peace, who still sponsor the school. The sisters’ education ministry in the area dates to 1823.

Dominican Sister of Peace Patricia Twohill, prioress of the sisters, expressed profound sadness at the school’s closure.

“We are keenly aware of the impact of the closure on the students, faculty and staff as well as the local civic community,” she said in a statement released June 1. “ For us, this is like a death in the family. St. Catharine College has graduated thousands of professionally trained students who are well-equipped to be productive citizens and leaders around the world.

“The legacy of St. Catharine College will live long in the hearts and minds of the alumni and with the Dominican Sisters of Peace,” she said.

St. Catharine employs 118 full-time faculty and staff, plus some part-time staff and adjunct professors, the news release from the school said.

According to the release, St. Catharine’s enrollment stood at about 600 students this school year. But fewer than 475 students enrolled for the next fall term.

The college attributes the decline in enrollment to a dispute with the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), involving reimbursement for financial aid.

The department had declined to reimburse the college for approximately $600,000 in aid for students enrolled in certain programs, causing the college to use reserved funds and attempt to raise money from donors.

On March 22, the college raised $450,000 – the largest fundraiser in its 85-year history – at the President’s Scholarship Dinner. More than 350 people from around the state attended the event.

St. Catharine filed suit in U.S. District Court against the federal department for the disputed funds in February and subsequently entered into mediation with the department.

The June 1 announcement from St. Catharine indicated that the mediation process had failed.

“The DOE’s sanctioning of the college has not only critically restricted cash flow, but has also irreparably damaged the college’s ability to attract students,” the release said.

“Prior to the problems with the DOE, enrollment was approximately 600 full-time students. Current enrollment projections are significantly diminished to fewer than 475 students enrolled for the fall 2016 semester – a drop that college officials exclusively attribute to the negative impact of the DOE’s ongoing refusal to allow financial aid in key programs.”

“With the length of time involved in financial aid sanctions, litigation and other looming capital debt, SCC would not be able to sustain the college’s financial needs even for the coming fall semester,” the release said.

The “looming capital debt,” referred to several new buildings constructed at St. Catharine in recent years, including residence halls, a health science building and a new library, the release said.

The college said it is helping its students ensure their academic credits will transfer to other institutions. The school also said it’s trying to make arrangements with other schools to offer tuition rates similar to those at St. Catharine for its former students.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz called the closure a “tremendous loss” and offered prayers for the students, faculty, staff and alumni of St. Catharine in a statement released June 1.

“Alumni greatly benefited from the strong Catholic identity and excellent education provided by this fine institution,” the archbishop said. “We are grateful to the Dominican Sisters of Peace, whose charism and dedication animated St. Catharine throughout its history, and to all of the administrators, faculty, and staff who have served the college so well.

He also praised the efforts of St. Catharine’s president, Dr. Cindy Gnadinger, and her staff to assist students during their transition.

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