SANTA PAULA, Calif.—Teresa Moses has seen a lot of change since she first came to Thomas Aquinas College.
Her freshman class comprised just 85 students; the number now hovers at 102. A new men's dormitory and lab building are completed and occupied, and construction is planned for a new faculty building and a dorm that will house 76 women.
Far from being a seasoned alumna, Moses has been at Thomas Aquinas just four years. The senior from Michigan is witness to the fastest growth ever at the California college, which will continue to increase in size until it hits its goal of 350 students in 2006.
That was the number originally set more than 30 years ago when a group of educators and philanthropists founded the school using St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., as the model for its “great books”-based curriculum.
Recently, a lack of space, buildings and faculty has kept the college small. But in the beginning, just 33 students made up the first freshmen class in 1971. As more classes were added, the size slowly grew.
“By 1979 we had crept up to 100,” said Tom Susanka, director of admissions and a former student. “It remained around 107 from '79 until '86. It might have grown a tiny bit, but not much. In '86 we decided that we were ready to do this.”
Thus commenced a concerted effort to increase student body size. Following several years of steady increase, in 1990 the college reached a bottleneck. It was out of dorm space, and finding teachers committed to Catholic liberal education proved difficult. The college wasn't willing to sacrifice the small community feel for a larger student body.
“We've always thought we can't grow any faster than we can find unique faculty for our programs,” said Dr. Thomas Dillon, college president.
At the same time, inquiries and applications were coming in faster than ever. “Over the last five years, we've been unable to take all the students who want to come here,” Susanka said.
Administrators can give plenty of reasons for the increase in interest. A thriving summer program for high school students introduces students to the school's rigorous curriculum, community atmosphere and high expectations. U.S. News & World Report has consistently ranked Thomas Aquinas College among the Top 40 “Best Values” of national liberal arts colleges.
But prayer has also played a large role—fitting for a college that holds three daily Masses and incorporates theology, philosophy and the Catholic view into its entire curriculum.
Six years ago there was a significant lull in admissions, so a staff member suggested that they gather each day to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet.
“By the end of the year we had recruited more students than we needed, and they were just the right kind of students,” Susanka said.
The “right kind of student” is a broad definition, but students at Thomas Aquinas have an average SAT score of 1292, are expected to participate in class discussions and understand that the college does things differently. There are no lectures, no textbooks and no majors, minors or electives. Teachers are “tutors” and classes are “seminars.” The college relies on authentic texts, the Socratic method and a broad and integrated vision of the whole life and learning.
The real challenge with all the new students will be preserving the close-knit community, something tutors are already addressing. Even with enrollment increasing, the school will retain a student/faculty ratio of 10 to 1.
“As the school has grown larger, it's become more difficult for tutors to have quite the same intimacy with all the students we used to have,” said Dr. Mike McLean, a tutor at Thomas Aquinas for 24 years. While all tutors once taught all students, McLean admits he doesn't know all students by name anymore.
“What helps is that all students take the same classes,” he said, “so even if I don't have a student in class, I can still sit down with that student at lunch and have a conversation about a certain subject. Our common curriculum and program is really the unifying principle and enables us to maintain friendships even when you might not know a student.”
Moses can attest to that. “We have tutors at every single meal time. Sometimes it seems like every conversation turns into a philosophical or theological discussion,” she said.
Besides dining with students, tutors invite students to their homes for dinner. The college also holds social events such as formal dinners that encourage interaction. The campus itself, according to McLean, is designed partly to foster community.
In coming years the campus will grow along with the student body. A $75 million fund-raising campaign launched last year will provide for the chapel and several other new buildings.
“We're overcrowded,” Dillon said. “We've got to build right away.”
It might have taken 30 years, but simple supply and demand is pushing the college toward its original goal.
“We saw that there was a greater and greater demand for this kind of education,” Dillon said, “and it is better for the Church and the community and the country the more students we educate.”
Dana Wind writes from
Raleigh, North Carolina.