After spending nearly a week in Washington DC at two professional meetings and the National Prayer Breakfast, I felt compelled to write the President. It is copied below. Let me just add that the National Prayer Breakfast was a wonderful two-day affair of meeting terrific people and hearing amazing speakers. It was, indeed, a privilege to be there!
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
February 6, 2012
Dear Mr. President,
It was my honor and privilege to attend the 60th National Prayer Breakfast February 2-3. You and all the speakers were eloquent in encouraging all of us to behave in ways consistent with our moral values. You and others urged us to try as best we can to bring “the spirit of Jesus” with us as we discuss difficult issues and work to fashion policies congruent with those values.
How uplifting to hear all the speakers both days! Democrats and Republicans alike seem to want to have the kind of respectful dialogue that has been so absent in the public arena these past two years. I pray for you and for all the Congress that we can make progress on the significant domestic issues before us even in this election year. I want you to know, also, how much I admire your work and achievements in foreign affairs.
President Obama, the National Prayer breakfast was the culmination of nearly a week in Washington for me, attending as a University president first, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) Annual Meeting, and then the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) Annual Meeting. It is from these vantage points that I write to say respectfully, sir, how deeply disappointed I am in your administration’s recent actions that impact our sectors. I would so welcome the opportunity to have a conversation with you about these issues! Since that is highly improbable, I just pray that somehow this letter finds its way to your desk.
At the ACCU meeting we learned of two of the federal government’s recent actions that restrict religious liberty, and impact our ability to define ourselves as religious institutions. First, the regional NLRB has “determined” that St.Xavier University in Chicago is not a Catholic university and, as such, must allow unionizing efforts for their adjunct faculty. Sir, the full-time faculty is unionized, and so the University has certainly not been anti-union. More importantly, their mission statement, legal and incorporating documents clearly define St. Xavier as a Catholic University sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy. Part of the history and identity of NewmanUniversity (where I am president),St.Xavier University, and all Catholic universities is openness and hospitality toward people of all faiths. We think that is in “the spirit of Jesus” and consistent with our Catholic moral values. Yet, it seems that the finding of “not Catholic” was, in large part, related to the fact that St. Xavier employs and enrolls non-Catholics! I do hope that your office will assist the national NLRB office in finding for St.Xavier University in its appeal of this ruling.
The second issue had actually already received significant national attention. That is, of course, the ruling by Secretary Sebelius and HHS that religious organizations, including Catholic universities, must provide coverage for contraceptives (including the “morning-after” pill which most Catholics believe causes abortions) and sterilization in our health insurance plans by 2013. Again, it seems that your administration wants to restrict our right to the free exercise of our religion, telling us we are not free to have policies and procedures consistent with our religious beliefs and moral conscience. Not only does this ruling seem unconstitutional, it doesn’t make good business sense.
More than two years ago, when we were negotiating a new health care plan for our employees, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Kansas had the most cost-effective bid for us. BCBS-KS was just gaining access to Catholic and other private organizations in our region. When we told them they needed to exclude contraceptives, abortions, and sterilization, they at first said they couldn’t do it. Once they realized it would be a deal breaker for us and other Catholic and faith-based entities, they found a way to do it legally. It just made good business sense! Please find a way to reconsider this precedent-setting, unconstitutional decision.
At our NAICU meeting, we had several sessions relating to your “Blueprint for Making College Affordable,” as outlined in your State of the Union address and speech at the University of Michigan, and as posted on your website. We are as one in applauding your concern for this issue, and your proposals to double Federal Work Study, expand Perkins Loans, maintain the Pell grant program, maintain the 3.4% interest rate on subsidized Stafford Loans, and retain the tuition tax credits (and other tax incentives for education). We were also very appreciative that you sent Ms. Zakiya Smith to meet with us. She obviously was interested in hearing our concerns, took copious notes, and at least seemed to grasp the real concerns we in the non-profit, private college sector have with the “blueprint” thus far. We found it reassuring, too, that your office and the DOE are honestly looking for our reactions before final proposals are formulated. So, in this final section of this treatise I want to react from the perspective of Newman University, Wichita, Kansas.
I assure you, sir, that affordability has been front and center for us the past several years, and we have already been meeting the 3 principles you outlined in your “blueprint” by setting responsible tuition policies, providing good value to students and families, and serving low income students.
Currently, NewmanUniversity’s tuition and fees are $21,841, nearly 25% below the national average ($28,500) for private, non-profit four-year schools. During the past five years, tuition increases have been 5% or less each, and we have held the line similarly on room and board. For 2012-13, we will likely be raising tuition 2.5% and holding room and board flat. During these years, the amount of institutional aid provided students has increased 68% in order to try keeping the net tuition costs as reasonable as possible for our students and families. For example, 98% of undergraduates received institutional aid in 2009-10, with the average amount being $11,573.
And we are serving an increasing number of low-income students. The percentage of Pell-eligible has risen from 34% in 2008-09 to 45% in 2011-12, and so you can imagine how important we believe it is to maintain the Pell grant program funding that we have. Twenty percent of our undergraduates are students of color, also an increase in recent years. On the other hand, we have not seen an increase in the numbers of students seeking student loans largely due to the increase in Pell funding, and our efforts to keep tuition increases low while increasing institutional aid significantly. During the last three years, the percentage of students taking Subsidized Stafford Loans has remained at 79%, and the Unsubsidized Stafford Loans actually decreased from 78% to 76% of undergraduates.
Beyond these numbers,Newman University has a history of partnering with public and private entities to deliver educational excellence in our region. Since St. Mary’s of thePlains College closed in Dodge City in the early 1990s, Newman University has been in partnership with all of the community colleges in western Kansas to provide accelerated degree completion programs for elementary education teachers. Our alumni there now number 484, and we are the largest provider of teachers to western Kansas of any public or private university. We now are offering reduced tuition rate, 5-course certificates in English as a Second Language for teachers throughout the state, helping them to be better elementary and high school teachers to a rapidly changing student population.
We are partnering with the University of Kansas Medical School-Wichita to provide instruction for first-year medical students on our campus. This unique arrangement is testimony to the excellence of our faculty in preparing students for medical and other health-related graduate programs (i.e., more Newman graduates are typically accepted to KU Medical School than any other KS college or university except for KU and KansasState!).
Recognizing that some families just can’t see four years of private education as possible, we now have dual admission and articulation agreements with nearly every community college in Kansas. Students can be advised by our faculty while still enrolled in their community colleges. And, with our “advance standing” programs in many public and private high schools in the region, more than 800 students are entering their first years of college at Newman and elsewhere with as many as 18 college credits. It’s been possible to graduate in three years from Newman University for more than a decade!
With all of these public and private partnerships, imagine my distress to read that your proposed “race to the top” initiative and $1 billion investment would only be open to public colleges and universities. We would be eligible to participate in the “first in the world” competition, it seems, but the $55 million proposed is certainly a much smaller amount making it less likely that a relatively unknown Newman University would win an award.
So thanks in advance to you, President Obama, or to any staff member who might be able to read this lengthy missive. Again, I wish we could have a conversation. I’d like to hear more about your approach to these issues, and how you have come to your commitments. I’d like to share my personal story of being a first-generation college student who took out significant loans to go to college, making the best investment of my life. Since we most likely can’t have that conversation, I’d like to beg your consideration of the issues I have raised. For my part, I pledge that I will keep praying for you as you work in the “spirit of Jesus” on behalf of the American people, our country and our world.
With great respect and gratitude,
Noreen M. Carrocci
3100 McCormick St.