Saint Peter’s University has long embraced its reputation for having an efficient approach to education.
Until five years ago, when it formally went from being a college to a university, the private Jesuit institution in Jersey City, N.J., was known for providing students a solid, no-frills academic foundation and sending them on their way. The process was efficient and unexceptional, but it worked and seemed a good fit for an institution located in a gritty factory town.
University leaders were fine with that model for many decades, but then things began to change in Jersey City and, over time, also at Saint Peter’s. Developers started rebuilding the city’s waterfront about a mile and half from the campus, spurring the start of an economic revival over the last two decades that is slowly but steadily making its way to other parts of the city. The city’s downtown has rapidly gentrified in the process, bringing in new companies and jobs and white-collar professionals to inhabit new housing in a city once mostly populated by working-class residents.
Saint Peter’s was also undergoing transformation during the city’s growth period, expanding and creating new degree programs and experiencing increased enrollment as a result. University administrators are now focused on preparing students to enter Jersey City’s still diversifying workforce and meeting the education and training demands of new employers.
In the process, Saint Peter’s and the city’s fortunes have become intertwined, and together they tell a larger story about how local or regional economic revitalization can affect a university, and how a university can, in turn, contribute to that revitalization.
Eugene J. Cornacchia, Saint Peter’s president, says the changes on campus are generating “lots of excitement among alumni and donors.” He’s capitalizing on this trend to keep the university on its upward trajectory.
Last September, a donor gave the university $10 million to expand its school of business and “significantly bolster business programs and establish new initiatives.” That donation followed another $10 million gift by a different donor in fall 2018. The donations are the two largest Saint Peter’s has received in its nearly 150-year history, and administrators say the gifts reflect not only new investments in the university and its students but also confidence and support for the direction in which the institution’s leaders are taking it.
“There is a lot of momentum,” Cornacchia said.
Cornacchia, who started his career at Saint Peter’s as an adjunct professor in the political science department and is the institution’s first lay leader, set the goal of turning it from a college into a university when he became president in 2007. He described the Saint Peter’s College of decades ago as a very different place than modern-day Saint Peter’s University.
“It was a sleepy school. It didn’t do a lot of exciting things, but it educated and shaped students,” he said. “With the world of higher ed changing and the world itself changing, we had to do something different. Now we have more innovation on campus. We’re more forward-thinking. We’re asking, ‘What are the new fields we have to invest in? Where do we have to go to next?’”
Cornacchia said the university has established relationships with members of Jersey City’s growing business community to help administrators determine the path forward. He said the university also plans to involve business leaders, along with faculty, students and community members, in the process of developing the institution’s next strategic plan.
“Board members and alumni will come on board, business executives and people from other industries,” and will be tasked with helping administrators “start thinking outside the box” and answer important questions such as, “What are the skills that students are going to need, not next year or the following year, but for the next five years and beyond?”
Advisory groups of business executives are already helping the university shape the curriculum to meet the workforce needs of local industries and employers. The business school now has a Bloomberg terminal room, a rarity for a nonelite institution and an investment recommended by the business advisers.
“Those are the things we didn’t do in the past. We sort of implied what their needs were, rather than asked them,” Cornacchia said of employers.
“A lot of those changes were so critical in showing the community we live in that the institution remains a viable partner in the community and is committed to sustaining the community,” he said. “I really believe that as long as an institution is embedded in the community where it is located, it has an ethical responsibility to assist the community in prospering.”
Joseph A. Panepinto, a Saint Peter’s alumnus and member of the university’s Board of Trustees, seemed to endorse those very sentiments when he gave the university $10 million in 2018. Half of the donation will be used for scholarships and capital improvements.
“As a native of Jersey City, it has long been my aim to help in the revitalization of this city,” Panepinto, a lawyer and president and chief executive officer of Jersey City-based Panepinto Properties, said in a university press release announcing the gift that year. “Some of the most important parts of our community are its charitable and nonprofit institutions. Education is certainly a very important one. Therefore, by supporting Saint Peter’s, we are supporting the future growth of our community.”
Frank L. Fekete, chair of the Board of Trustees and also an alumnus, said at the time that Panepinto’s gift would help Saint Peter’s play a leading role in the revitalization of the city.
Frank J. Guarini, the other big donor to the university, is a Jersey City native and former U.S. congressman. He did not attend Saint Peter’s, but he grew up across the street from the campus and served on the university’s Board of Regents. He is a longtime supporter of the university whose gifts include the Guarini Institute for Government and Leadership, a nonpartisan forum for discussion of key public policy issues, and the Guarini Center for Community Memory, which is located in the university’s main library and houses his congressional papers and other special collections. He also donated the president’s residence, Guarini House. The business school has since been renamed the Frank J. Guarini School of Business.
“Our business school will open the door to new experiences for tomorrow’s leaders,” Guarini said in a press release announcing his gift last September. “They have a bright and challenging future in this beautiful and complex world. Our young men and women will undoubtedly be benefited by the outstanding education they receive here at Saint Peter’s.”
While both gifts attracted attention — the first $10 million donation led to a bump in alumni giving — the gift to the business school generated “a lot of buzz among alumni,” Cornacchia said.
“Our alums are electrified by it,” he said. “It has really started to make people say, ‘You know what, there’s a lot going on at the school.’ And they’re proud of it.”
A $10 million gift is a pittance compared to the donations to powerhouses such as the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania or Harvard Business School. A single donor gave Wharton $50 million in 2018, as part of a $1 billion fundraising campaign. Harvard University, which raised $9 billion during its most recent campaign, received the largest gift in its history, $400 million, in 2015 from a graduate of the business school.
“A gift to Saint Peter’s will go farther and would be a lot more appreciated,” said Paul Grimes III, a member of the advisory board for the university’s Center for Career Engagement and Experiential Learning. He noted that many Saint Peter’s students are the first in their families to go college and have to work part-time to help pay tuition.
Grimes, a district manager for the Sherwin-Williams paint company, has volunteered his time and business expertise and also taught classes and recruited employees on campus over a 20-year period.
“If you give to universities like Saint Peter’s, you’re really enabling them to give back to the communities they serve,” he said, adding that the university does a great job preparing students for the workforce. “And their diverse student population is also great for me as an employer.”
Cornacchia said there’s also a flip side to the newfound largess.
“One of the things we worry about is people saying, ‘Well, you just got $10 million — what the heck is my $100 gonna do?’”
Apparently a lot. Open-access institutions such as Saint Peter’s are more dependent than ever on donors as enrollment drops at colleges and universities across the country, revenues shrink and federal funding decreases. At the same time, however, some of these institutions are also increasingly being recognized for the solid education they provide at relatively affordable rates even as tuition rates climb over all nationally. (Saint Peter’s tuition for the 2019-20 academic year is $37,660, but most students pay only about $14,000 after receiving financial aid from the federal government, the university and other sources.)
“We’re not in a tony suburb and we don’t have a sprawling campus with lakes and things like that,” said Leah Leto, Saint Peter’s vice president for advancement and external affairs. “We were going unrecognized for a number of years, but now people are seeing the value in the things that schools like Saint Peter’s do.”
She cited academic outcomes such as rising graduation and retention rates as among the university’s notable achievements. The six-year graduation rate went from 53 percent in 2016 to 54 percent in 2018, and the retention rate for first-year students went from 77 percent in 2016 to 82 percent in 2019. She also noted the increased numbers of minority and low-income students served.
“If you consider the disadvantages that our students are carrying, we’re very proud of those statistics,” she said. “They often come to us with deficiencies, but we see potential in them and put a lot in them to ensure that they can succeed and graduate on time, get out there and get jobs.”
Such outcomes are seen “as the return on such a costly investment,” she said. “People see what we’re doing is important and want us to continue.”
Leto noted that both Guarini and Panepinto were visionaries involved in the development of Jersey City.
“They have been anchors in Jersey City and partly responsible for the renaissance occurring now,” she said. “They see us as being part of the advancement that is needed.”
Of the 2,600 undergraduates enrolled at Saint Peter’s, the majority (94 percent) are traditional students, ages 17 to 22, pursuing more than 50 majors with the largest concentrations in the sciences, business and criminal justice, while also studying the liberal arts as part of the core curriculum. (There are also 800 graduate students and 300 adult learners enrolled in the School for Professional and Continuing Studies.) Approximately 54 percent of all full-time students are first-generation students, 48 percent are Hispanic, 22 percent are African American and 9 percent are Asian, according to the university. Ninety-eight percent of the students receive financial aid.
Despite all the talk of change, the neighborhoods surrounding the university have not experienced the same economic development as the city’s trendy waterfront now dotted with expensive high-rise apartments and condominiums.
“Our neighborhood is still not quite there — it’s evolving but still a little gritty,” Leto said. “We’re trying to think about what it will be like 10 to 15 years from now.”
Leto said the gift to the business school will help it “deepen and advance what we’re already doing,” such as teaming up students with local entrepreneurs, small and micro-business owners, advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations to help them grow their businesses or organizations, develop websites, do critical analytics and develop marketing plans. The students get important work experience in exchange. The project is an initiative of the Ignite Institute, a center founded on campus in 2014. The institute was “designed to spark the spirit of entrepreneurship through education, business planning, community-partnered programs and research both on campus and regionally,” according to a university press release, and it “currently serves as a hub for entrepreneurial empowerment in Jersey City and beyond.” The institute holds an annual Local Living Economy Summit, which brings together local government agencies, business development organizations, anchor institutions, nonprofit organizations, entrepreneurs and businesses “to stimulate practical solutions” that can help “create an economy that is fair and equitable for all.”
A university task force has been created to replicate the effort in other departments across the campus, Leto said.
“It’s one of the goals of our strategic plan, a big step and a real rethink. We always assumed we were engaged in the community, but we’re now being more strategic and more holistic about the way we do that.”
Despite the many changes the donations have allowed Saint Peter’s to implement, Leto said the university has no plans to stray too far from its core mission.
“Every school has aspirations and wants to be better, but we’re not trying to become something different or serve a different demographic,” she said. “We just want to become stronger and better and more resilient, and our donors recognize that.”
Eileen Poiani, special assistant to Cornacchia and a professor of mathematics, who has been at the university for 52 years, said the changes taking place on campus and in Jersey City feel like a natural progression.
“In many ways, the university has kind of been a fixture in Jersey City, and as the city has changed, so have we,” she said. “We are a very small school — we’re only on 25 acres — but we’ve made an incredible impact on the area. We’re also a significant consumer in the area.”
Poiani, who was formerly vice president of student affairs, noted that the university agreed in 2011 to take over St. Aedan’s Catholic Church, which is now a university and parish church that serves area residents of all backgrounds. The university also opened a Campus Kitchen in 2014 that serves free meals to community members in need.
“We really are part of the fabric of the city,” she said.
Jersey City mayor Steven M. Fulop, who received an honorary degree from the university in 2014, agrees.
“As we continue to see positive growth in every corner of Jersey City, Saint Peter’s University remains at the forefront of education and institutional research and maintains a prominent presence attracting a competitive student body from all over the region,” he said in an email.
As enthusiastic as he is about the growth of the university and the city, Cornacchia still wishes more donors could look beyond the lofty image of certain colleges and universities and see the vast potential of nonelite institutions as local and regional economic engines.
“It would be nice if someone wrote us a $100 million gift check, but how often does that happen?” Cornacchia said.
“If donors just would take a step back and look at our kinds of institutions, they would understand that we’re the ones educating the vast majority of people and we have the least resources. If people want to have an impact, they should give to these institutions,” he said.
Cornacchia said philanthropists with business backgrounds, in particular, should keep this in mind.
“Joseph Panepinto gets it — he understands what we’re doing here,” Cornacchia said of the donor who gave Saint Peter’s its first $10 million gift. “He lit the match to the development of Jersey City many decades ago. He has a deep affection for the university and sees it as important to the city and the county. He wants Jersey City to be a viable community for young people.”