Why you should care

Escape from economic hardship sometimes requires a helping hand.

Joan Payden, class of ’53, gave a lot more than just $10 million when she donated that amount to help build a new Academic Center at Trinity Washington University in the nation’s capital. The 2013 gift — the largest in Trinity’s history — was also the crowning seal of approval from the alumna after university president Patricia McGuire’s near quarter-century effort to save the Catholic women’s college by radically changing its mission. That’s not to say it was popular. “How many movements were there to fire me?” McGuire asks, laughing.

This energetic, no-nonsense leader reinvented Trinity. It was once home to a middle-class, predominantly white student body, many of whom were graduates of Catholic parochial schools, including luminaries like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, the former governor of Kansas and U.S. secretary of health and human services. Now, it’s got a majority of minority students from the Washington, D.C., area. But McGuire’s latest challenge is no walk in the park: As Trinity nurtures “women on the margin” — predominantly poor, young urban women of color — it’s raising $30 million (with $4 million left to go) and planning to increase the student body by nearly 50 percent in the next five years, to 3,350 students. Last year, McGuire won the prestigious Carnegie Academic Leadership Award.

With her short dark hair, wearing an informal zip-up pink sweater over a black shirt, McGuire meets me in what looks like a boardroom on the campus main hall — and, honestly, it’s a mess. A set of shiny gold-colored shovels are pushed to one side, having been used in the Academic Center’s groundbreaking ceremony, and samples of carpet, tiles and millwork are arranged on a table. Then there’s the pile of flattened boxes from Staples, and academic gowns hung near a room divider. It joins the buzz of activity that gathers pace as contractors nearby erect the new $40 million center.

At least Trinity won’t face an existential threat like Sweet Briar College in Virginia, whose decision last year to shut its doors underscored the difficulties facing women’s colleges. Sweet Briar was put back on life support only after alumni came to the rescue. Trinity, which spent $30.5 million last year on operations, with income mostly coming from tuition and fees, could have turned out the same way when its traditional pool of relatively well-off applicants began heading to newly coed men’s schools. Instead, for Trinity’s transition, McGuire credits the vision of two allies: nuns on campus who had a passion for helping women denied access to education, and businessmen on the board who saw ways to generate income by increasing professional education, for men too. “The traditionalists hated that,” she says.

Then, when minority enrollment passed 50 percent, applications from middle-class whites collapsed. “Once we got over the hump, we realized this was our future,” she says, and it became a point of pride. Now an astonishingly high 85 percent of students are supported by Pell Grants for those in financial need, compared to 10 to 24 percent at top liberal arts schools. Stuart Butler, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in D.C., says the key for colleges like Trinity is supplementing the traditional liberal arts focus with an emphasis on skills for the workplace. “Colleges that take steps to address that will thrive,” he says.

Today her students include a mix of single moms, some of whom might suffer a beating from boyfriends jealous of their education or face pressure from their own moms to earn money for dope.

Trinity has long been McGuire’s home — she graduated from here in 1974. Before that, she grew up in a big family (five brothers, one sister), the daughter of an Irish-Italian marriage of first-gen immigrants. They moved from house to house in Philadelphia’s western suburbs, living on her dad’s modest accountant’s income and attending Catholic schools. “We lived in the enclave of the parish,” she says. She attended Trinity on full scholarship before tackling law school at Georgetown. Her parents, she says, “were very disappointed that … I had a career, didn’t get married.”

Today, at Trinity, her students include a mix of single moms, some of whom might suffer a beating from boyfriends jealous of their education or face pressure from their own moms to earn money for dope. “What they don’t realize until they get here is how hard it is,” she says, as many arrive motivated but are unprepared academically. Some students start, then stop, then return as they ride the roller coaster of poverty.

To help on this front, Trinity practices what McGuire calls “intrusive advising,” which includes chasing students who fail to show for class. Beatrice Peterson, who graduated in 2012, credits the school’s quality of teaching for preparing her well for her next step, Columbia Journalism School. “The campus was very much a sisterhood,” she says. “I was motivated because my classmates were motivated.”

But of the incoming class in 2008, only 45 percent graduated in six years. That’s well below national averages, though across town at the University of the District of Columbia, the six-year graduation rate is 16 percent, according to that school. Terry Hartle, vice president of the American Council on Education, calls Trinity’s graduation rate a “stunning” achievement given the challenges the student body faces, and says McGuire is “one of the most impressive national voices in higher education today.”

McGuire’s belief in her methods have led her to loudly question President Obama’s call to make community colleges free for all, fearing it might be a “Trojan horse” that could undermine the spread of education opportunities to needy populations. She’d rather expand the Pell Grant program, which lets students choose where to go. Of course, the Pell Grants also help keep Trinity alive and thriving.

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