Catholic colleges are searching for new homes in the Southwest. Can they succeed?

When Janet Forde, the librarian at Benedictine University Mesa, moved from Chicago to her current job in Arizona in 2017, the campus library consisted of 16 computers and a small reference collection. She describes a 40-volume, 1930s edition of Ludwig von Pastor’s History of the Popes as the “highlight of the collection” at the time.

Ms. Forde has built libraries from scratch throughout her career, from the Caribbean to the Midwestern United States. So when the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration closed their monastery in Tucson and moved back to Clyde, Mo., Ms. Forde acquired the library shelving they left behind and 6,000 books on behalf of her university. She is slowly cataloging those books and putting them out for circulation. The library is now a study space, too, with lounge chairs where students slouch over laptops. “Hopefully we’re going to get a door,” she says, gesturing to the open entryway between the library and a café.

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Photo J.D.
When Janet Forde, the librarian at Benedictine University Mesa, moved from Chicago to her current job in Arizona in 2017, the campus library consisted of 16 computers and a small reference collection. (J.D. Long-García)

Benedictine University, whose main campus is in Lisle, Ill., is one of several institutions trying to bring Catholic higher education to a fast-growing region that until recently had none. The Diocese of Phoenix, which includes Mesa, is home to 1.2 million Catholics; 60 percent of them are Latino, and most of them are young. This massive population is not matched by a number of Catholic institutions sufficient to meet its needs. As Kevin Broeckling, executive vice president of Benedictine University, who oversees the Mesa campus, which opened in 2013, said, “It’s kind of a Catholic higher-ed desert right here, literally and proverbially.”

Benedictine University, whose main campus is in Lisle, Ill., is one of several institutions trying to bring Catholic higher education to a fast-growing region that until recently had none.

In the past decade, several Catholic colleges have come to the Valley of the Sun. A few withered. Benedictine seems to be taking root. Another, Mary College at ASU, a branch of the University of Mary, whose main campus is in Bismarck, N.D., is pursuing symbiosis with Arizona State University. Meanwhile, the Catholic University of America is bringing a national reputation and $2 million from the Charles Koch Foundation to a new campus in Tucson, two hours’ drive to the south.

The next few years will be critical to whether or not Catholic higher education can bloom in the desert. If it does, it may provide a vital service to a population that represents the future of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Serving Students Where They Are

Benedictine University’s Gillett Hall—a former hospital building—sits across from a vast, empty concrete lot in downtown Mesa, a sprawling city of half a million whose Main Street is quiet on a Friday morning. The building is at the end of a light rail line that leads to the busier cities of Tempe and Phoenix. There is an orange tree out front, picked clean of every fruit within arm’s reach.

In 2012, the mayor of Mesa called for proposals from private universities throughout the country to open branch campuses that would help fill the city’s education gap and revitalize its downtown. Five proposals were accepted—two of them from Midwestern Catholic institutions, Benedictine University and the College of St. Scholastica, in Duluth, Minn.—and the universities began offering classes in city-owned buildings in 2013.

Success was not immediate. “We opened up the doors, and nobody came,” said Benedictine’s president, Charlie Gregory, who at the time was the university’s executive vice president. The Mesa branch started with just 71 students.

Six years later, Benedictine has nearly 500 students, and it is the only one of that initial group of colleges that still offers in-person classes in Mesa. In 2017, it converted a 1890s hotel into a dormitory for 56 students. Currently, a plurality of the students are Hispanic, and about 60 percent are first-generation college students. The campus is about seven percentage points behind the main campus in its graduation rate, Mr. Broeckling said.

“We opened up the doors, and nobody came.”

The branch was funded initially out of the university’s budget, with the physical space financed in partnership with the city. Mr. Broeckling said the campus is now “on the verge” of self-sustainability. “On the balance sheet, we’re very close to recouping our investment here,” Mr. Gregory said. He anticipates further growth “by doing a few things and doing a few things well but never veering from our mission of who we are.”

As the branch grows, the main campus faces challenges common to private universities in the Midwest and Northeast: reduced enrollment and difficult budgets. Inside Higher Ed reported that Benedictine University ran deficits in 2015 and 2017. Enrollment diminished from about 6,500 in 2012-13 to fewer than 5,000 in fall 2018.

Athletics are a big part of BenU Mesa’s growth strategy, Mr. Broeckling said. When I approached a table of three students in the campus café and asked why they came to BenU, they said, in unison, “Sports.” About 60 percent of the student population play a sport, according to Mr. Broeckling. The baseball team alone lists 73 names on its roster.

As a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics institution, BenU Mesa can offer athletic scholarships to students like Paige Padilla, a first-year health sciences major from nearby Gilbert, Ariz., who plays volleyball. The coach’s outreach got her interested in Benedictine. Ms. Padilla said she is Catholic, but she was not looking at other Catholic colleges. She had friends who had gone to BenU, and she wanted to stay close to home. “Family is pretty important to me,” she said.

Benedictine University at Mesa
Sef Norton, a theology major from Mesa at BenU Mesa, wants to be a high school theology teacher in the Phoenix. (J.D. Long-García)

Other students are drawn to the university’s Catholic identity. Sef Norton is a theology major from Mesa. After graduating from a local Catholic high school, he studied at a seminary in Denver and at Mesa Community College before transferring to BenU Mesa. He now wants to be a high school theology teacher, and he wants to stay in the Phoenix area. He described Benedictine as his “only option,” the only university in the state where he could complete an in-person bachelor’s degree in theology.

Ramon Luzarraga, an assistant professor of theology and a founding faculty member at BenU Mesa, said the presence of Catholic colleges can help the state and the diocese overcome the challenge of “brain drain.” Too often, he said, “Arizonans go out of state to study, then stay out of state,” limiting the pool of talent for both the local economy and parish leadership.

The university recently launched the St. Procopius Leadership Institute, a cooperative venture with the diocese to help students develop as lay leaders within the local church. BenU Mesa is also working with the diocese to start a master’s degree program in theology conducted entirely in Spanish.

“The people are here. The commitment is here. What we need are the institutions,” Mr. Luzarraga said. “We need to have more structures to help the church achieve its mission.” Benedictine cannot do it alone, in his view. “Even a 2,000-student institution would mean the region is underserved,” he said.

The Education Gap

BenU Mesa and the other new campuses are opening against the backdrop of a massive demographic shift in American Catholicism. The center of gravity is moving to the Southwest, a region with large numbers of Latino Catholics. But Arizona ranks below the national average in rates of educational attainment; and as a group, Hispanic Catholics in the United States have a low rate of college experience. In 2017, 28 percent of Latino Catholics had some college education, compared with 63 percent of white Catholics.

“Even a 2,000-student institution would mean the region is underserved.”

Phoenix and Tucson are not the only growing, heavily Latino Southwestern cities underserved by Catholic higher education. In Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, the fourth and fifth largest U.S. metro regions, have millions of Catholics but only one small Catholic university each: the University of Dallas and the University of St. Thomas. Austin also has one. El Paso, Las Vegas and the Rio Grande Valley have none. New Mexico’s lone Catholic college closed in 2009. San Antonio, the 300-year-old seat of Spanish colonialism, has three Catholic universities. For comparison, the Philadelphia area, with a similar population, length of Catholic history, and number of Catholics, is home to 10.

BenU faces the challenge of being new in an area where there is little history of private college education at a time when families are increasingly concerned about college costs. Cost is especially important to first-generation college students. “The population that needs the education is the population that can’t afford it,” said Christine Fletcher, associate professor of theology at BenU’s Lisle campus. “The church as an institution is in a real bind.”

The seven Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Phoenix—six diocesan and one Jesuit—enroll about 5,000 students. Mr. Broeckling said that he at first expected graduates of these schools to come to his campus in solid numbers. “But it didn’t happen,” he said. “We finally heard directly from one of the guidance counselors that ‘We needed to make sure that you were going to make it before we started referring our students to you.’”

BenU Mesa
Students at BenU Mesa study outside of the university café. (J.D. Long-García)

For families trying to navigate among factors like distance, size, prestige and cost, a new college is not an obvious choice. Katie Widbin, a college counselor at Brophy College Preparatory, a Jesuit high school in Phoenix, said, “The biggest challenge to newer colleges is the base of experience and alumni.” So far, there are few BenU alumni in the region. And for some families, “The return on investment is important to them, and part of that is the name recognition of the school,” she said.

Still, Ms. Widbin recognizes a need for Catholic higher education in Arizona. About 20 percent of Brophy Prep graduates leave the state to attend Catholic colleges. “If we had an in-state Jesuit university here, I imagine we’d have a lot of applicants and a big enrollment,” she said.

Diocesan officials recognize the need, too. “We’re in one of the fastest growing dioceses in the United States, and that’s exciting,” said the Rev. Fredrick Adamson, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Phoenix. “Whenever a university inquires with us, we want to explore the possibilities.” A diocesan spokesman said that the diocese was not aware of additional proposals for Catholic college campuses in its territory.

A Catholic School on a Secular Campus

At the corner of College Avenue and University Drive in Tempe, there is a red brick church among the burger joints, parking decks and palm trees of a city dominated by Arizona State University and its more than 50,000 students. The church was constructed by Mexican American laborers in 1903, making it ancient by central Arizona standards. It is the home of Mary College at ASU, a branch of the University of Mary that opened in 2012. The church, once a foothold for missionaries, is now a library, lecture hall and office space.

Inside, on a Thursday evening, about 30 students, faculty members and staff from Mary College at ASU and elsewhere sat at tables among the bookshelves—a shelf for Cardinal Newman, one for Joseph Conrad—conversing over burritos. At one table, students talked about the necessity of living life in a way that makes possible a good death. At another, they discussed divine foreknowledge, free will and multiverse theory with one of their professors. A student who describes himself as an atheist said coming to these events is changing his life.

Msgr. Shea said Mary College is “an investment not just for the University of Mary, but, we think, in an innovative model for Catholic higher education going forward.”

The gathering concluded with evening prayer. Rows of chairs were arranged facing each other, like the choir stalls in a monastery chapel. Jonathon Hofer, program coordinator of Mary College at ASU, explained how antiphonal prayer is done. When the prayer ended, several students joined their peers at ASU’s Newman Center, which operates out of a complex next door, to go on a service project.

Mr. Hofer hopes the students’ “integrated experience of education lights something in them.”

Mr. Hofer arrived on campus in January, after working in student life on Mary’s main campus in Bismarck, N.D., and its Rome campus. He refers to the students as “pilgrim learners.”

St. Mary College at ASU.
Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary, greets students outside of All Saints Catholic Newman Center in Tempe, Ariz. The university is partnering with Arizona State University to offer classes in the Southwest. (Courtesy University of Mary)

The campus began after the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. Olmsted, invited the college’s president, Msgr. James Shea, to bring undergraduate education to the diocese. Monsignor Shea then approached Arizona State officials after reading ASU president Michael Crow’s strategic plan for the university. “He talked about partnerships, radical engagement…and engagement with private entities,” Monsignor Shea said. “And we’re a private entity.”

The partnership resulted in Mary offering courses toward a major or minor in two areas, theology and Catholic studies. ASU students could transfer the credits to satisfy general education requirements. At the program’s height, 50 students were taking classes.

That number is 17 now, seven of whom came south from Bismarck on a “domestic exchange,” whereby they take classes at Mary College and at Arizona State and help build a community that can organically attract ASU students interested in Catholic studies. Monsignor Shea describes the exchange program as a “reboot” of the campus.

The students from the North Dakota campus seem enthusiastic about what they are studying. They warm quickly to guests. Cecilia Nicklaus, a philosophy major from the main campus who went to Tempe to take classes at ASU and at Mary College, said, “When I miss my Catholic studies classes, it’s like I’m missing part of myself.”

When Monsignor Shea was asked to describe success, he stood up from an armchair in the church’s choir loft and looked down to the sanctuary, imagining it filled with students assembled to hear a speaker who is engaging with the great human questions “and the students themselves are feeling enriched, clarified, inspired and engaged on that level. That would be success.”

Practically, that means having enough students to enable him to hire full-time faculty and thereby create “a communion of scholars.” Monsignor Shea estimated the college could be sustainable with 120 students but said he would like to see 500, with some of them living in dedicated housing. Ultimately, he said, Mary College is “an investment not just for the University of Mary, but, we think, in an innovative model for Catholic higher education going forward.”

The Search for a Niche

In the past decade, several Catholic universities have failed to take root in the Phoenix area. St. Scholastica was among the initial group of colleges in downtown Mesa, offering degrees in social work and nursing. It left in 2018, and the dean of the college’s School of Health Sciences, Bruce Loppnow, told The Duluth News Tribune that “there really was not a viable path to develop what we would consider to be a thriving presence in Arizona without a whole lot more resources.” Saint Xavier University, whose main campus is in Chicago, opened a branch in a $37-million building constructed by the city of Gilbert, just southeast of Mesa, in 2015. The university closed the campus less than a year later, citing budgetary concerns related to state funding of higher education.

Speaking of what the diocese has learned from the closure of those campuses, Father Adamson said: “Starting a second campus is very complex. When we talked to [Saint Xavier officials] at the very beginning, I said you have to look at a long-term commitment, that those first few years are going to be rough, because it’s so new.”

The last boom in new Catholic colleges in the United States occurred after 1945, when rising demand among the children of Catholic immigrants for higher education.

There is also plenty of competition from universities both small and large, as cities in the Phoenix area attempt to attract institutions of higher education the same way Mesa and Gilbert did. Ottawa University, a Christian institution from Kansas, signed a 65-year lease for a campus in the city of Surprise. It opened with 434 students in 2017 and hopes to have 3,000 within a decade.

A few Catholic universities have more specialized programs in the region. Creighton University has operated a nursing program in downtown Phoenix for a decade, and it is now creating a health sciences center that will house a four-year medical school, among other programs. Faculty from Franciscan University of Steubenville’s online theology degree programs meet Phoenix-area students in person at the local Institute of Catholic Theology.

The biggest competitor, however, is Arizona State, which is rapidly expanding. ASU’s student population grew by 5,000 students on its five metropolitan Phoenix campuses between 2012 and 2016; that growth is approximately the size of the entire student population at Benedictine’s main campus.

The University of the Incarnate Word, whose main campus is in San Antonio, briefly offered classes in the city of Goodyear, west of Phoenix, but left in 2009. The Arizona Republic reported at the time that the university pulled out after ASU indicated it wanted to open a campus in Goodyear, with Incarnate Word officials saying they did not think they could compete with the public giant. Ten years later, there is no ASU campus in Goodyear.

Arizona State now plans to open a campus in Mesa in 2021.

The last boom in new Catholic colleges in the United States occurred after 1945, when rising demand among the children of Catholic immigrants for higher education—and the means to pay for it through the G.I. Bill—coincided with historic highs in the membership of religious orders who could staff the colleges. Now, in the Southwest, there is rising demand among Latino Catholics seeking to join the professional class, but both the federal money and the zealous labor pool of vowed religious have diminished.

New universities in the region will have to rely on the zeal of committed laypeople. Ms. Forde, BenU Mesa’s librarian, is a Benedictine oblate of Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wis. “We’re doing what the Benedictines did in Lisle” more than a century ago, she said, noting how monks from St. Procopius Abbey in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood established the university in what was then a remote agricultural community to educate first-generation college students. “They aimed at serving a community that wasn’t being served. And we’re certainly doing that here.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
THOMAS BATSIS
6 months 3 weeks ago

The author presents a balanced if somewhat bleak picture of the challenges facing the expansion of higher education into the Southwest, or for that matter any area of the country. As he points out, there have been numerous attempts to open new Catholic colleges in the Phoenix area, as well as other areas of the country, with most ventures crumbling after several years. The need may be great, but it needs to be backed by significant donor resources. At this period of the American Church's history, one can only wonder if this is the time to be attempting to expand the traditional concept of a Catholic institution of higher ed in this region, or any region.

Donna Zuroweste
6 months 3 weeks ago

Now we know that Tucson is able to be bought by the Koch brothers, so they, like Bannon can shape the Catholic Church to their 1% ideology, just like bishops who allowed FOCUS programs into Newman Centers nationwide (a Ponzi type "evangelism" program, also funded by the 1% ers).

Sad that donors can buy dioceses, and let us be clear. They do that.

Paul Mclaughlin
6 months 2 weeks ago

Catholic University sold it soul.

Phil Petrucci
6 months 2 weeks ago

I'm very sorry you feel this way. The FOCUS program is a wonderful program, which lots of fruits. Dr. Edward Sri (one of the co-founders) is back with them. He's an amazing theologian, scripture scholar, and teacher.

And I would not say FOCUS is funded by 1% ers, each FOCUS missionary has to fundraise his/her own salary and living expenses for the year. Yes, some get large checks from their home parish, but many depend on a little money here & there.

The amazing programs FOCUS does on campus like the UPENN, Temple University, Drexel University, West Chester University, etc are just amazing. I wish my public university had a FOCUS chapter when I was in college (though FOCUS didn't exist back then).

I don't know what your experience is, but they are doing wonderful stuff at FOCUS, I highly suggest talking to some of the missionaries that are on campuses to learn more about the work they do.

God Bless

Donna Zuroweste
6 months 3 weeks ago

Internet error

Donna Zuroweste
6 months 3 weeks ago

Internet error

David Rave
6 months 3 weeks ago

It Is true that University of Albuquerque is closed. Lewis University is alive and well in Albuquerque, New Mexico

John Mack
6 months 2 weeks ago

Since nothing effective is going to be done about climate change, will the southwest even eb habitable in 50 years? i know a college student from New Mexico. In his home town you can't go outside in the summer due to the horrendous heat. This was not the case when he was a young kid. The town is solidly Republican and the adults deny there is any climate change going on. What happens when the AC fails due to excessive demand?

Tom Wente
6 months 2 weeks ago

As a San Antonio resident, I found the reference to Catholic colleges in San Antonio dismissive. UIW has been growing rapidly with a student population now over 12,000. It has added a medical school, pharmacy school, PT school and optometry school, making it a true university. It recently added a full collegiate football program. Today, the school announced it is acquiring a 350,000 sq foot office tower and 500 car garage from AT&T, allowing it to grow in a confined area of the city. UIW also owns two of the 10 Catholic high schools located in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, IW High School and St. Anthony High School. Students at these high schools can take UIW classes during their junior and senior years if they qualify academically. The University has also partnered with Catholic elementary schools to create a pipeline to its high schools.
While not growing rapidly, St. Mary’s University and Our Lady of the Lake have specific strengths. St. Mary’s has received large private donations for its business school and is home to the only law school in the city. St. Mary’s has begun offering dual credit courses to students at Antonian, Central Catholic and JPII high schools while OLL partners with Holy Cross High School for dual credit classes.
All three of these schools, however, have to compete locally with Texas A&M San Antonio, University of Texas at San Antonio, and Texas State @ San Marcos, all of which get the benefits of significant state funding and financing. UTSA is expanding its downtown campus and recently received a very large private donation for its Data Science program.
Two additional schools located in San Antonio are not mentioned in the article: Mexican American Catholic College which offers dual language BA and MA degrees in Pastoral Ministry and The Oblate School of Theology which offers master degrees for both religious and lay ministers.
As a parent of a college sophomore at a large state university and a junior at Antonian here in San Antonio, I find the investment in Catholic education much more important at the high school level. Formation is integrated throughout the activities and culture of the school, not only in theology classes. When I look at the options for Catholic colleges, most do not compete at the same academic level as the top public universities, while carrying higher price tags. In addition, the Catholic identity of the colleges and universities does not seem as integral to their mission as it does for Catholic high schools.

John Chuchman
6 months 2 weeks ago

The truly good schools cannot get Olmsted’s approval

Phil Petrucci
6 months 2 weeks ago

Hello John,

I don't think that's fair. If you notice around the country, when new Catholic Colleges focus on starting with Theology degrees, they seem to work.

College of St. Scholastica was one of the colleges that tried and failed. They are NOT known as an orthodox and conservative Catholic college. Plus, Benedictine University which is running the program in Mesa isn't one either (the orthodox and conservative Catholic college you might be thinking of is Benedictine College in Kansas, not Benedictine University in Illinois). Neither Scholastica or BenU is on the Newman Society's list of faithful Catholic colleges, nor the National Catholic Registers list of faithful Catholic colleges. So I don't think you can make the argument that Bishop Olmsted is blocking the "good Catholic colleges."

The truth is that large Jesuit colleges (and others like Notre Dame) are not going to spend millions of the dollars to support a branch campus. Esp, when they could use online education (which most are not even embrancing) and they have all have old and EXPENSIVE buildings to maintain on their main campuses.

Branch campuses are VERY hard to maintain without state support - which is why most colleges with branch campus are state schools or they use classrooms at community colleges or office share companies for space. Privates colleges frankly cannot afford to create branch campuses.

Also, if you look at the history of Catholic Colleges, with the exception of a number of niche colleges, most started in order to teach theology and/or Catholic studies. They may have had other degrees too, but their main goal was to teach theology & Catholic philosophy at a time when most college students simply received a Liberal Arts degree or a degree in Philosophy.

If you start a new Catholic branch campus which only offers majors that you can receive at a public university, with no established Catholic culture (like Scholastica tied to do), what's the advantage of attending that potentially unstable Catholic branch campus?

That's why what University of Mary is trying at ASU and other groups like the Collegium Institute at the University of Pennsylvania (http://collegiuminstitute.org) is pretty interesting. They are offering Catholic education (sometimes including degree opportunities) at non-Catholic schools, similar to how some colleges exist in Canada, England, etc.

Finally, I think what some of the Newman Centers are currently doing is also outstanding. They are really providing a way for colleges kids to grow in their faith while attending a secular institution. Just for example:
University of Wisconsin - Madison https://uwcatholic.org/
University of Indiana http://www.hoosiercatholic.org/
University of Illinois https://www.sjcnc.org/
University of Texas A&M https://aggiecatholic.org/
University of Pennsylvania http://newman.upenn.edu/
etc... there are a ton of others that are doing amazing jobs today, offering far more than just Sunday Mass.

Anyway.... it's not that Bishop Olmsted isn't letting good colleges come to his diocese, but that few have wanted to come.

God Bless

Charles Daschbach
6 months 1 week ago

These examples of Southwest expansions of Catholic Colleges missed the big one. Creighton University School of Medicine recently announced its $99 Million expansion of its Phoenix branch at St. Joseph's Hospital into a full 4 year Medical School. Yesterday the Virginia Piper Trust pledged $10 Million towards an initial seven story building as they are transforming Park Central Mall next to St. Joseph's... The official groundbreaking on the $99 Million complex will be in the fall...Jesuit Creighton had developed an expanding Phoenix Branch in Phoenix about 10 years ago with St. Joseph... Charles Daschbach MD

Charles Daschbach
6 months ago

I'd like to add that Creighton also has Nursing Students here at St. Joseph's and their Pharmacy School created one of the first long distance / internet curricula in 2001. I'm not as familiar with their School of Health Professions... but they have a very competitive Masters degree program in Health Care Ethics...

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