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.
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.
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.’”
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.”
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.”