Catholic University is receiving the largest gift in its history: $20 million. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

A $20 million gift — the largest donation ever given to Catholic University — will allow the university to double the number of nursing graduates.

The nursing school will be renamed the Bill and Joanne Conway School of Nursing in recognition of the $40 million total the couple have given over time.

That’s a small fraction of the amount Bill Conway, a member of Catholic’s board of trustees, and his wife plan to give. Bill Conway is co-founder and co-executive chairman of the Carlyle Group, an investment firm.

After asking the public how to focus their philanthropy, the couple set a goal to help educate 10,000 nurses.

And through major gifts to six Washington-area universities, they are now at 1,707.

Why nursing? A few reasons. They were interested in training people for in-demand jobs. They saw how profoundly nurses helped Bill Conway’s parents as they aged. “I saw that if a person could get a nursing degree, they could take care of themselves, their family and ultimately the rest of us,” Bill Conway said.

At Catholic, he was moved to see nursing students donate their time at a clinic for homeless people, caring for their feet.

Previous donations from the couple totaling $20 million underwrite full and partial scholarships for nursing students, many of whom would not be able to afford a baccalaureate education without it, said Patricia McMullen, dean of the nursing school. “That’s my favorite call every year,” she said, when she tells students they have received a scholarship. “I get a combination of shouts and crying for joy."

The Conways had been focused on scholarships but decided to help fund a building for Catholic when they realized it would remove the main obstacle to educating more nurses.

McMullen said admission to the school was limited the past few years because space was so constrained. The gift will allow Catholic to double the size of the school to 700 students.

Conway said he expects the couple may add scholarship programs at five or more nursing schools in the next several years. “It’s hard to get to 10,000 nurses with only six schools,” he said.


Bill Conway meets with graduates of Catholic University’s School of Nursing Conway Scholars Program and Dean Patricia McMullen on a recent visit to campus. (Dana Rene Bowler).