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How one Ohio Catholic university is bucking trends

A sign with a cross reads 'Franciscan University.' Yellow flowers bloom in front of it.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
The Franciscan University just admitted its largest Freshman class ever. It opened a new dorm to accommodate the growing student body.

The Franciscan University of Steubenville just admitted its largest freshman class ever: 772 students, according to school officials.

The school, on the far eastern edge of Ohio, had to open a new dorm before the start of the school year to accommodate them.

“We just purchased a hotel, and renovated it in about six weeks to make it into a dormitory-style residence hall,” said John Herrmann, the school’s vice president for enrollment management.

That dorm is already full.

And that’s just one sign of the university’s record-breaking growth.

For the past seven years, enrollment at the Franciscan University of Steubenville has been rising, even though college enrollment at many Ohio universities is dropping and Catholic parishes in the state are consolidating, due in part to declining participation.

“We continue to exceed all of our goals and have to find places to actually put these people,” Herrmann said.

That’s not something a lot of Ohio colleges can say right now.

In fact, many are dealing with the opposite problem.

Declining college enrollment in Ohio

Between 2010 and 2020, data from the Ohio Department of Higher Education shows enrollment across Ohio’s public and private colleges dropped by about 10%.

A garden, with red flowers in the shape of a cross, is in full bloom on a college campus.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom

Todd Jones, the president and general counsel of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, says that’s because the state’s demographics are changing.

“Independents and public [colleges] have seen the same issue in Ohio since around 2010, which is, we’ve had a steep decline in the number of traditional-aged students who are graduating,” he said.

As a result, schools have to figure out a way to either adapt to a smaller student body or attract more students, often from outside the state.

Some schools do the latter pretty well, Jones says, like Cedarville, a Baptist university east of Dayton, and the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

“Institutions that have a very particular appeal have done very well at drawing students in,” Jones said.

At the Franciscan University of Steubenville, that appeal centers on a strong integration of the Catholic faith.

“Our market niche is putting together a quality education with a vibrant Catholic sacramental life and a vibrant faith formation community in the student life,” Herrmann said.

This is what’s attracting students like Leslie Tupper, a sophomore from Michigan studying psychology.

“I just wanted an on-fire Catholic community,” she said. “I came here on a whim, and the Lord very distinctly was like, ‘You should be here.’”

Tupper found her “on-fire” Catholic community, and a lot of other students did, too.

“I just wanted an on-fire Catholic community. I came here on a whim, and the Lord very distinctly was like, ‘You should be here.’”
Leslie Tupper, Student

Every Mass here is packed, according to John Romanowsky, another university employee. Confession draws a crowd.

“If you're going to go to confession around here, you have to have time to wait,” he whispered inside the campus church. “Students will be lined up out the door, and depending on the day, sometimes it can go up the ramp and up the stairs.”

That’s something he hasn’t seen anywhere else, and that speaks to another trend.

Declining church participation

While the Catholic community at this university is flourishing, Mass attendance across the Diocese of Steubenville is declining.

Between 1990 and 2019, the diocese saw a 45% drop in the number of people attending Sunday services, according to Bishop Jeffrey Monforton in the diocesan paper. That’s even before the COVID pandemic hit, which changed people’s church-going habits even more.

That’s part of what prompted Bishop Monforton to consider consolidating with the Diocese of Columbus — a proposition that was tabled last year after opposition from the local community.

Steubenville isn’t the only diocese to see declining church attendance.

Both the Cincinnati and Columbus dioceses are consolidating parishes in the midst of a priest shortage and shrinking congregations.

A 2019 Pew research study found fewer and fewer Americans are regularly attending religious services at all. The decline is especially strong among younger generations.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at Franciscan University’s campus, which teems with more and more students each year, excited about the Catholic faith.

“It would hurt us if this trend [of declining church attendance] continues,” Herrmann said. “But we're hoping that the students that we're producing are actually going to change that trend.”

In the meantime, he anticipates the school will keep growing, limited not by interest, but by physical space. Eventually, it might even have to open another dorm.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.