New Evangelization Draws Students to New Colleges

Colleges Week feature: How Catholic identity surmounts tough economic times.

The economy might be experiencing one of its worst times, but Catholic colleges seem to be experiencing their best times, all things considered, because of their commitment to Catholic identity.

The Augustine Institute in Denver, which offers graduate degrees on campus and through distance education, saw record enrollment this past year. “One big draw for us is our program,” said Edward Sri, provost and professor of Scripture and theology. “Particularly, our distance-education program is booming.”

The distance program was launched in 2008, and by fall 2011, it had more than 200 students. Students like how the DVD format makes them feel part of a live class, plus the flexibility of the program means they can “maintain their work and revenue and responsibilities on the home front with their families and still work on their master’s degree,” Sri said.

Additionally, the institute’s graduate program is competitively priced at $365 per credit hour.

Students also “know the school stands out for being completely faithful to the magisterium and teachers dedicated to the New Evangelization,” said Sri. “That’s the point we hear the most from students, in addition to the high-quality video of the distance program.”

Ave Maria University officially opened its Florida campus in 2003. Jim Towey’s appointment as president and CEO of Ave Maria early in 2011 was followed by the arrival in September of the largest incoming class in Ave Maria’s history.

Enrollment jumped 22% from the previous year, and the school is already looking at a 35% increase from 2011, according to Towey.

Ave Maria’s uniqueness is what Towey attributes to the record numbers. “It stands as a place where excellence, affordability and Catholic values meet in full measure,” he said via email.

The school benefits from the generosity of the university’s founder, Thomas Monaghan, and many donors. And with generous scholarships, the net cost of tuition and fees is remarkably competitive — “even more impressive when one considers that the campus is only a few years old and offers state-of-the-art facilities,” the president observed.

Another essential draw is how “the university respects the values instilled at home by the parents of our students. Ave Maria University seeks the advancement of human culture, the promotion of dialogue between faith and reason, the formation of men and women in the intellectual and moral virtues of the Catholic faith, and the development of professional and pre-professional programs in response to local and societal needs.”

Enrollment is growing elsewhere, too.

“Our enrollment is definitely growing,” said Derry Connolly, president of John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego.

“We have a compelling program that people want,” he said. The media focus is especially appealing to students (see story on C1). In addition, there’s the recent biblical theology graduate program, which is offered online as well as on campus. Since the online biblical master’s degree began in the fall of 2009, the enrollment has risen to 45.

Tuition plays its part, too, in the college’s appeal. The president said it is still significantly less than at big Catholic schools: “That works out well for us.”

The College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, N.H., draws people for unique reasons, according to Tim Van Damm, vice president of advancement and admissions.

Not only does the college thrive because of its rigorous Great Books liberal arts education — this is the only college in the country that grants the apostolic catechetical diploma for undergraduates on behalf of the Holy See. The college also includes two years of art and music as part of its program, which appeals to many students.

Another draw is the college’s rebirth. “We’re in a period of refounding and looking to grow the school significantly over the next couple of years,” Van Damm said. “In the last year we have a new president, name and vision. For students, this is an exciting time, a rebirth of the college.”

And tuition is also key.

“We intentionally kept our tuition low,” Van Damm said, “so we can make a world-class education affordable for families sacrificing to enable their sons and daughters to go to an academically serious place where their faith is going to be encouraged and built up.”

At Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Ontario, Canada, enrollment is growing slowly but surely, according to senior development officer Maria Reilander. The student body is 10% American.

“Our students are drawn by our tuition, the Catholicity, orthodoxy and spiritual environment, and the safe atmosphere,” she said. “The students really appreciate the simpler life here.” The “simpler life” includes a small-town atmosphere.

Although the school relies a lot on donor support, low tuition is a draw for students. Tuition is $5,950 Canadian for the year — $11,000 with room and board. As Reilander said, “That’s a big reason why we’re still on peoples’ radars.”

At Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., the average enrollment continues to grow, too, with 370 students, a 20% increase, for next year.

“The idea of a serious Catholic liberal arts education using the Great Books and involving students in an active way in their education continues to hold an attraction for a significant number of people,” said Michael McLean, president of Thomas Aquinas.

McLean described how the school’s two-week summer program for 120 high-school students has proven to be an excellent pipeline to enrollment. Close to 50% who attend go on to apply for admission to the college.

Even in these difficult economic times, donors remain generous. “Thanks be to God we’ve been able to raise scholarship funds sufficient to provide financial assistance to deserving students and families,” McLean said, “so we’re able to make our education very affordable in these times. Our tuition and room-and-board rates compare favorably with schools in our category.”

In Merrimack, N.H., The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts freshman class has grown by 25% in each of the past two years.

“We are on track to continue this growth rate in fall 2012,” said Charlie McKinney, vice president for institutional advancement.

The school notes several reasons for this growth. First, the college has a low student-to-faculty ratio and a strong academic program.

Second, a variety of programs allow students to augment their studies in meaningful ways, such as through the Guild Program, which trains them in woodworking, art, baking and music, or through internship programs in areas like law, business, publishing and politics. Also, this is the only college that sends every student to Rome for a full semester at no extra cost.

McKinney observed that when families are pinched financially, they begin to look hard at the return on their investment, concluding: “At a fraction of the cost of major universities, they find in Thomas More College the benefits of attending a small Great Books college along with the opportunities normally associated with larger institutions.”

Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo., is also meeting the challenges for many of the same reasons. Mark Randall, vice president for institutional advancement, believes it has two distinct advantages as a smaller, newer college.

First, a smaller budget and less administrative bureaucracy allow the college to be quite nimble reacting to the economic situation. Second, the college has a nationwide base of benefactors very keen on seeing it succeed as a start-up college. One donor recently told him, “We’ve seen the great things small Catholic liberal arts institutions like Thomas Aquinas College can do. We want to give Wyoming Catholic College the same chance.”

Now in its fifth year, Wyoming Catholic has done quite well drawing students to the school because of its mission and liberal arts degree.

“Moreover, they are attracted to our Outdoor Leadership Program [see accompanying story in this section], something that no other college in the U.S. provides,” he said. “And they appreciate that their Catholic faith is not going to be undermined here, but, rather, enriched and appreciated.”

While the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., is not new, it has new qualities and vision that are meeting the challenges of the times.

“We’re the most affordable Catholic college and university in the country, as far as we know,” underlined Father James Shea, the president, about the $13,000-per-year price. “Here you get a world-class education that’s affordable.”

“Serious Catholic families are looking for a good place where their students can get a quality education in a values-based Catholic environment and where they can be confident in the safety and security of their students,” he said. Bismarck ranks as one of the country’s safest cities.

After he became president in 2009, Father Shea rolled out the Catholic Scholars Program, where graduates of a Catholic high school anywhere in the country receive free room and board, courtesy of donors.

“The reason we do that is we’re trying to build a real culture on the campus which is amenable to the things of faith,” Father Shea explained.

As the new president, he has steered the school to a stronger Catholic identity. Attendance at daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, confession and Bible study are increasing, as is enrollment.

“It’s an answer to prayer,” he said. “God has been really good to us.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.