WASHINGTON — The Catholic University of America in Washington is fighting back after its enrollment dropped last September. Despite a record 3,000 applications, only 540 first-year students enrolled, down from more than 800 the previous fall.

Vincentian Father David M. O'Connell, president of the university, said that the decline has had adverse budgetary implications for the entire university community. He added that “the availability of more competitive or attractive financial aid packaging was the factor that deterred a higher subscription.”

In an innovative move that should help to reverse the trend, the university has decided to offer guaranteed, annually renewable $3,000 scholarships to every parish-nominated high school senior accepted for admission at the university for the fall 2001 semester. Each parish may nominate as many students as it wants.

The nationwide Parish Scholarship Program, worth $12,000 to each student over four years, was outlined in information packets sent to Catholic parishes throughout the United States in December. If the program is successful this year, the university will probably continue it in the future.

Father O'Connell, president of the university, said the scholarships were meant to “help deserving students in Catholic parishes participate in a life-transforming educational experience at CUA.”

In addition, he said, “we offer it as a visual symbol of our gratitude to Catholic parishes, whose constant generosity has affirmed the importance of our unique and privileged role among American Catholic institutions of higher learning.”

Dale M. Herold, dean of enrollment at Catholic University, said she thinks the nationwide program is unique.

“I know of at least one Catholic institution that offers a scholarship program to students in local area parishes,” she said. “Since we are the national university of the Catholic Church, it makes sense for us to be the first to offer this kind of program to Catholic parishes throughout the country.”

‘A Catholic Home’

In this year's annual report to U.S. bishops — who founded and sponsor Catholic University — Father O'Connell said a Catholic university or college campus should be “a Catholic home away from home.” He said creating a Catholic ethos and environment on campus is important “so that our students have the opportunity to witness the Catholic faith in those of us who work with and care for them, and so that our students are both encouraged and supported to live their Catholic faith in the immediate context of where they learn.”

Consequently, Father O'Connell said, the quality of campus life and ministry, residential life, worship and service is critical.

The president said he has seen spiritual life on campus transformed by the presence and work of the Conventual Franciscan priests who undertook campus ministry at the beginning of his tenure in 1998.

“It is a marvelous thing to see,” he said, describing students praying at holy hours and eucharistic adoration, asking for special Masses for teams and clubs, and seeking vocational guidance. Of about 50 to 60 men and women students who participated in two discernment groups, 11 entered seminaries or religious life in September, he noted.

He said the friars regularly hear confessions, and with other campus ministers sponsor student retreats and help students share their faith without fear of rejection.

“That faith on the campus is translated into action quite generously,” he said, “as our students volunteer in record numbers for service activities throughout the District of Columbia.”

Signs of Vitality

Father O'Connell noted several signs of vitality on the campus in Washington's northeast quadrant. Among them were:

l A retention rate among undergraduates that is more than twice the national average.

l An increase in the number of part-time and full-time law students.

l A “thriving” seminary in Theological College.

l Good rankings for graduate and undergraduate programs by U.S. News and World Report and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

l Reaccreditation by the Middle States Association of the Higher Education Commission, along with a AA-bond rating from Moody's.

l The ongoing construction of two new residence facilities and expected groundbreaking for a new university center next spring.

l New appointments in development, public relations and alumni relations, as well as new deans for the schools of nursing, philosophy and religious studies.

“What all this says to me,” Father O'Connell told the bishops, “is that the university is doing the job and doing it well for our students but that we need to get its message out there more strategically.”

He thanked the bishops for their financial and moral support, and encouraged them to promote the university with parents and students in the pages of diocesan newspapers and by hosting receptions.

The priest also mentioned the possibility of closer ties with the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family and increasing collaboration with the National Conference of Catholic

Bishops, U.S. Catholic Conference and Pope John Paul II Cultural Center.

He said he is considering making the university's canon law department — its “only absolutely unique program” — once again a school in its own right.

Calling Catholic University “distinctively American” and “authentically and unambiguously Catholic,” Father O'Connell said the institution “is solid, strong, healthy and moving forward with confidence and with enthusiasm into the next century.” (CNS contributed to this article.)