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Wyoming Catholic College spurns federal aid, students and families find ways to fund education

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LANDER, Wyoming — Mary Terlisner and her parents found creative ways to pay the $28,000 yearly cost to attend Wyoming Catholic College, a small liberal arts school with buildings scattered throughout the downtown here.

Terlisner researched scholarships online and plans to work a summer job. Her mother, a nurse, took extra shifts at the hospital. Her father, a retired teacher who now works in real estate, dipped into the family's savings.

They did not turn to the federal government for financial aid. That would have been an option at some 6,200 colleges across the country, but not here. And that is unlikely to change.

The college is one of a select few in the country that opted out of participating in the federal financial aid program. The college's board made the decision unanimously in February, citing concerns over losing religious and political freedoms concerning a range of issues — from homosexuality to birth control.

It was a decision that many students and their families supported.

"Our school has a peculiar personality," said Terlisner, a freshman.

Since Terlisner's family opposes debt — they don't even have a home mortgage - they wouldn't have borrowed through the federal program anyway. But some 13 million other students across the country depend on roughly $150 billion doled out as federal grants, loans and work-study money to pay for school each year.

Because of the school's decision, students at Wyoming Catholic College will have to pay out of pocket or find sources other than the federal government to foot the bill, which is roughly $10,000 higher than the estimated yearly cost of attending the University of Wyoming.

It was not a decision the school took lightly, said Kevin Roberts, the college's president. But it was one the college ultimately made to shield it from what he called "increasingly burdensome regulatory requirements."

Tia Sardello took a year off from her education and worked as a nursing assistant to earn cash for college. That helped, said the freshman from Broomfield, Colorado.

She, too, supported the college's decision to forgo federal financial aid programs.

"When an establishment takes federal money, they may be controlled by federal laws," she said. "We want to do our own thing."

"I thought it was a good decision," said her father, Stephen Sardello, who said it does not put a burden on the family.

Tia Sardello has a merit scholarship through the school, works 10 hours a week in the college kitchen and has help from her parents. Her mother works in accounting, and her father works for IBM.

Sardello is considering nursing school after Wyoming Catholic College. She likes the emphasis on the outdoors and a Great Books program in which students read classics of Western literature. It's one of a few Catholic colleges with a Great Books program.

The school, established in 2007, is in the process of becoming accredited through the Higher Learning Commission, a group that oversees colleges and universities in 19 different states in the region.

The move made the college eligible for federal financial aid, but school officials were concerned that if they participated in the federal program, they "might be forced to hire someone living in a same-sex relationship," said Roberts, the college's president.

Roberts said the school doesn't accept homosexuality, though he admitted some of the students might have "same-sex attractions."

"I'm sure of the 120 students here, a handful have same-sex attractions, because it's natural and that's fine here, unless they choose to live an active same-sex life style," Roberts said.

By accepting federal aid, administrators were also concerned they would have to provide dorm and bathroom accommodations for transgender students or birth control for women.

After graduating in May from the college with a liberal arts degree — all students have the same major — Clarissa Schmidt will marry a man she met at school and find a job.

PHOTO: Oliver Evy, a junior at Wyoming Catholic College, studies quietly inside school's chapel on Friday afternoon, April 17, 2015 in Lander, Wyo. The college recently declined to participate in federal student aid programs due to concerns over same-sex marriage and birth control. (Dan Cepeda/Casper Star-Tribune via AP)
Oliver Evy, a junior at Wyoming Catholic College, studies quietly inside school's chapel on Friday afternoon, April 17, 2015 in Lander, Wyo. The college recently declined to participate in federal student aid programs due to concerns over same-sex marriage and birth control. (Dan Cepeda/Casper Star-Tribune via AP)

Like many other students, she paid for school through a combination of private loans, jobs and parental help.

Schmidt didn't know offhand how much she owed in student loans. She said the cost is worth it because of the quality of the education.

"I fell in love with the place for the curriculum," she said. "Rather than looking at computers or whatever, it was the broad perspective of what it means to be a human. That was very appealing."

The school is the only private Catholic college in Wyoming. About 120 students enrolled in the fall. Roberts expects an additional 30 students next year.

When the school received notice that it would become eligible to offer aid in August, administrators assembled a task force that for six months studied the implications that accepting federal funds would have for students and the school.

The money would have provided the school $600,000, but Roberts said it wasn't worth it.

In addition to having to deal with regulations, Roberts expressed concern over what he called "the financial side of higher education" and the "artificial intervention of the federal government" — a funding model that he said is teetering on the brink of self-destruction.

Outstanding student loan balances across the country in 2013 exceeded $1.2 trillion, according to the Brookings Institute.

Roberts likened the federally backed student loans to banks offering subprime mortgages leading up the housing market's collapse in 2008. On the other hand, those loans often come with lower interest rates and more options for repayment than private loans.

To survive, Wyoming Catholic College depends on philanthropy and the handful of students whose parents cut checks for the full price. When it decided to refuse federal student aid, the school introduced the St. Thomas More Fund.

The fund will help pay for the school's internal loan program.

"First, please join us in prayer by joining St. Michael's Army, a group of prayer-warriors for the College. Second, we'll need assistance in facilitating our internal, private loan program for current and future students," an open letter from the college read.

Roberts said the school's in-house loans have up to 10-year repayment terms, and each student can borrow up to $14,000 from the school. He said interest rates are comparable to those for federal loans, which in 2015 were 4.66 percent for subsidized loans and 6.21 percent for unsubsidized loans.

In addition, students can also work up to 15 hours a week in the school's version of a work-study program. In so doing, they can bring in $3,500 a semester by doing work that also benefits the school, such as working in the outdoor leadership program, carpentry around campus or helping with fundraising.

The rest of the money comes from a mixture of scholarships, outside loans and parents' bank accounts.

Senior Zachary Thomas received a $10,000 merit scholarship from the school each year. His parents paid the rest.

He will graduate in May with no debt, he said.

"Zero — except in love and gratitude to my parents," he said.

Thomas' father is a treasurer for a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother is a stay-at-home parent.

His brother attends a school that costs $65,000 per year, he said. Thomas said he too attended a $65,000-per-year school before transferring to Wyoming Catholic College. The Lander college is a bargain in comparison, said Thomas, who has been accepted into a graduate theology program at the University of Notre Dame in the fall.

"(My parents are) actually happy I ended up here," he said.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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