From Cristo Rey to West Catholic High
Inspired by a successful career in aerospace and his board leadership of the Cristo Rey organization, Nick Howley ’75 wants to give West Catholic students a golden ticket.
Nick Howley’s parents believed the two most important gifts they could bestow upon their eight children were an education and a moral compass. Howley never forgot that, and he and his wife, Lorie, have committed themselves to providing that same opportunity to disadvantaged youth in his native Philadelphia and adopted home of Cleveland.
“We look at kids whose ticket out is an education,” Howley says. “We think the best way we can help these children is to give them the chance to seek other education long-term that they couldn’t otherwise afford.”
To that end, he established The Howley Foundation in 2001, and it currently provides tuition assistance to about 900 students to attend primarily Catholic schools, including Drexel’s neighbor, West Catholic Preparatory High School. This year, the foundation expects to give out approximately $25 million in aid funded entirely by the family.
This year, Nick and his daughter Meg Howley, who serves as executive director of the foundation, established the Howley College Scholars, a new scholarship at Drexel for West Catholic students who are engineering, accounting and finance majors. Five students per year will be funded, up to $1.875 million over nine years. Anything not covered by the scholarship will be covered by Drexel, to ensure they graduate with zero debt. Students will be chosen based on merit, candidate pool, financial need and alignment with the scholarship program. The first cohort to receive the scholarship will begin in fall 2024.
“To be able to give students such an in-demand skill set, this could change the trajectory of their lives,” says Meg Howley.
Drexel played a formative role in his life, Howley recalls. He played in the final seasons before Drexel eliminated its football program, he graduated near the top of his class in mechanical engineering in 1975 and went on to Harvard Business School. Both his father Walter (BS C&E General Studies ’51) and his daughter Meg (MS psychology ’10) are also Drexel alumni. In 1993, he and his partner Doug Peacock started TransDigm Group, a publicly listed company that has grown into one of the biggest aerospace firms in the country. TransDigm also funds the Doug Peacock Scholarship Program to support female students pursuing engineering and business degrees at Drexel.
“We were fortunate and made a fair amount of money,” he says of himself and his wife. “So we said to ourselves, ‘It’s time to start giving back. Where do we think we can make the most impact?’”
They naturally gravitated to the Catholic school system, Howley says, as a matter of practicality.
“It’s the only standing alternative of any size in most big cities,” he says.
The first student they funded attended St. Joseph Academy in Cleveland.
“She got through the school, and she got into college,” Howley says. “She ended up with a PhD in biochemistry and is a researcher and teaching at a college now. I’m not saying that’s our average hit rate, but that was the first girl we took, and it was really thrilling for us.”
Along with his work at his own foundation, Howley became involved as chairman of the national network of Cristo Rey, a group of Catholic high schools with a “sweat equity” model that readies students with limited means for college and careers by combining rigorous studies with four years of professional work experience that defrays the cost of tuition. He joined the board in 2013.
The work-study aspect of the organization is a natural parallel to Drexel’s co-op program, he says.
“It addresses a work ethic, which is a nice add-on to the character formation and the academics,” Howley says. “A lot of the students that we support, they need a job. If they get out of college and don’t get a job, there’s no one to fall back on. So they need the kind of career education that Drexel offers.”
Andrew Brady is the president of West Catholic. He’s known Howley for nearly a decade.
“He’s someone who is very much focused on access, on making sure that great kids with potential have the opportunity to attend good schools and get what they deserve, which is the opportunity to climb the social ladder,” Andrew Brady says.
As part of the scholarship agreement, Drexel will work with West Catholic to expand its STEM programming.
“People of color are underrepresented in the STEM fields,” Brady says. “We believe part of the reason for that is because of exposure and access. It feels like this is a very natural partnership and an opportunity for us to work together and provide our students with more access and exposure to Drexel, which hopefully results in them matriculating there.”
Nick Howley knows he’s lived a blessed life. He feels a responsibility to give back, and because of his work with the Howley Foundation and Cristo Rey, and his philanthropy at Drexel, thousands of kids have a better chance of one day reaching the heights he has.