Are Three Catholic Universities Too Many for San Antonio?

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Photo from Our Lady of the Lake University.

Our Lady of the Lake University has risen from the ashes once already in this era. A four-alarm fire all but swept away the distinctive landmark spires of historic Main Building in May 2006, which I and many others took as a harbinger of things to come for the struggling Catholic school and its Sisters of the Congregation of the Divine Providence.

OLLU President Tessa Martinez Pollack

We were wrong then. We underestimated the resolve of the trustees, the Sisters, and OLLU President Tessa Martinez Pollack, who returned  to San Antonio more than a decade ago with the mission of revitalizing the university. The award-winning Kell Muñoz restoration of Main Building that was completed in 2010 created a new 21st century campus hub and symbolized rebirth for the 117-year-old Westside school.

OLLU survived the fire, but it is still fighting the same challenges that threaten its place in San Antonio’s increasingly competitive higher education market. Is OLLU’s newly announced strategic plan for growth the answer?

Its two direct competitors are St. Mary’s University and the University of Incarnate Word, giving students three distinct choices in the Catholic higher education market here. Is there room for all three?

OLLU also vies for students with the fast-growing Alamo Colleges, which smartly tailors many programs to job market growth, and the University of Texas at San Antonio, which offers many more degree options at far less cost to students seeking a four-year or advanced degree. The arrival of Texas A&M-San Antonio University into the market, located on the city’s Southside, adds  yet another inner-city alternative.

Competition is one challenge. Performance is the other. Students attending OLLU are charged $35,522 for one year’s tuition, room and board and fees. Only 13.9% of the students graduate within four years, and only 31.9% within six years. That places OLLU last among the city’s private universities. With that cost-performance ratio, can OLLU compete? Put another way: Is it delivering a good enough education to students to justify the expense?

All three Catholic universities here offer substantial scholarship and financial aid to students, few of whom can afford to pay the full cost. But most students – even those who never graduate – take on significant debt, often climbing into the tens of thousands of dollars. College dropouts defaulting on student loans is a growing national problem. There are 34 million Americans 25 years or older who have earned some college credits but haven’t received a diploma, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Most of them lack the kind of jobs and income to repay those loans. Local figures are not available, but the implications are clear: A lot of San Antonio students are starting college, borrowing heavily, dropping out, and defaulting on their loans. It’s not a problem exclusive to OLLU, but low graduation rates there make it a necessary measure of OLLU performance.

St. Mary’s, by contrast, graduates 34.3% of its students in four years, and 59.8% in six years.  Its total cost for one year is $31,926, about 10% less than OLLU.

UIW only graduates 13.5% of its students in four years, and 38% in six years, but at $24,890 a year, it offers prospective students a more affordable option.

Trinity University, in a class of its own, really doesn’t factor here. If a student has the academic record, test scores and ambition to gain admission to Trinity, he or she probably is not thinking about attending one of the city’s other private schools. Trinity graduates 67.7% of its students in four years, and 78.4% within six years. The annual costs of attendance, living on campus, is $46,274, offset by the university’s large endowment and the fact that peer universities, such as Rice in Houston, are priced on average well over $50,000 a year.

Trinity's Skyline Campus

Trinity’s skyline campus.

[The costs for each university were found on their websites, while graduation rates come from Please see updated information in the comment section, “A much-appreciated email from …” below this story.]

OLLU has made headlines twice in recent months. In November school officials announced an academic restructuring that eliminated 12 degree programs, all of which suffered from low enrollment and were seen as low-value career choices in the job market. Unfortunately, the news hit campus like another fire. Students enrolled in those programs were protected until graduation, yet students and some faculty still protested the decision and its dissemination. Martinez faced two hours of tough questions from unhappy students, who then launched a Facebook page called “Stand with the 12,” which has grown to more than 800 users, a respectable protest at a university with about 2,800 undergraduate and graduate students.

In retrospect, OLLU could have made the changes much more adroitly by eliminating the degree programs one at a time while implementing other more market-driven academic innovations. Instead, its strategy of dumping everything at once made university officials look like they were throwing things overboard to keep their ship afloat.

Last week OLLU announced its new strategic vision of becoming a Top 20 Catholic university, on par with the likes of Boston College, Holy Cross or Fordham University. Trustees supposedly approved the new plan in October, even before the eliminated degree programs were announced. Yet the new strategic plan sat on the shelf for months, as if it wasn’t quite fully formed. OLLU’s newly stated national class ambitions, frankly, struck many as oddly off-key: A university declaring its newfound intentions to achieve greatness when it has not yet figured out how to be just plain good.

The measures for such success are no mystery. OLLU will need to grow enrollment dramatically improve graduation rates and either find students able to pay for more of their education or attract new levels of philanthropy. All of that is highly unlikely, mostly because of the competition OLLU faces in a crowded marketplace. Students with higher scores and/or more money have other choices.

Catholic higher education is a calling, not a business. You do not have to be Catholic to recognize its core values of combining academic excellence with spiritual training. But any philanthropist would likely  look at the San Antonio higher education market and conclude that this Catholic city is overserved. Consolidation might be the best course to improved performance. St. Mary’s and UIW are formidable competitors, each for different reasons.


Courtesy / Thomas Mengler

St. Mary’s President Thomas M. Mengler

St. Mary’s has a new president, Thomas M. Mengler, who is not yet well-known in San Antonio, but his prior record at  the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis of building up its law school and raising tens of millions of dollars in alumni gifts suggest the St. Mary’s trustees found the right person to fill the shoes of retired President Charles Cottrell.

St. Mary’s, like OLLU, is located on the Westside, buts its superior academic performance, law school and business school place it in a category of its own among the three Catholic universities. Among the three, St. Mary’s also has been the most successful in making the spiritual mission of community service part of the core curriculum and campus culture. The school has many successful alumni in the leadership of the city. NuStar Energy Chairman Bill Greehey, a St. Mary’s alumnus, has given tens of millions of dollars in gifts to the school.

UIW President Dr. Lou Agnese Jr.

Dr. Lou Agnese Jr. has been president of UIW since 1985, and in that time has transformed the school in almost every way, leveraging salesmanship, deep contacts in the business community and the school’s near-Alamo Heights location to develop  a campus brimming with new buildings, athletic programs, higher profile faculty and program growth. UIW faces some of the same performance metrics as OLLU, but its inviting, leafy campus and handsome red brick buildings seem to communicate a different kind of university experience. Its Midtown proximity to Brackenridge Park and high-performing Trinity University does not hurt, either.

Academic institutions, from public schools to universities, seem deeply averse to real change, but crisis usually proves the best catalyst. OLLU might be wise to spend less time trying to compete with the nation’s best Catholic schools and instead figure out a viable niche in the local Catholic school market.

What would that look like?

It probably means something very different from what it is now. It might mean a non-traditional on-campus partnership with the secular Alamo Colleges, or an invitation to the San Antonio Catholic Archdiocese (which is struggling to reinvent the dying parochial school model) to establish a regional K-12 feeder academy on campus, or even inviting non-profits serving the same population to become paying tenants. Affordable online learning and programs aimed at individuals who interrupted their college educations might be other areas of opportunity.

The most logical partnership worth exploring, it would seem, would be with its Catholic peer institutions. Some might consider that to be the end of OLLU. Others might consider it a new beginning.

Coming tomorrow: The challenge to San Antonio’s K-12 Catholic schools.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.



8 thoughts on “Are Three Catholic Universities Too Many for San Antonio?

  1. Excellent and enlightening story. I had lost track of graduation rates and tuition. As you know, Bob, I was Director of Public Relations for UIW in the 90s. Great place to work, as things were always exciting and growing under Lou Agnese. Of course, raising money was always forefront because, as you pointed out, few of those students can afford to pay the full cost. Anyway, one day the development director and I were very excited to make a trip to Laredo because the wealthy and prominent oilman Tony Sanchez had granted us an audience. We felt sure we’d be coming back with a major gift. We arrived and were invited to wait in a state-of-the-art conference room. The long table abutted a wall which was a giant TV screen, on which the image was what appeared to be a reflection, but without us in it. Turns out it was another conference room in Houston. We were awed by the technology, the quality of furniture and art on the walls … and, again, we were certain this visit could only result in a major gift. Mr. Sanchez finally arrived, alone, and after the customary niceties, he sat down to deliver a brief sermon on how San Antonio does not need three Catholic Universities, and that if we would combine our resources we would not need to be asking for so much money. Then, just as suddenly, the audience was over and we left stunned and empty handed.

    Now, I’m not agreeing with Mr. Sanchez. It’s just a funny story. San Antonio offers an abundance of Higher Education opportunities and the market will determine their viability. I think it reflects our diversity and greatness, but also the great need. Even in 2013, so many of those students are the first person in their family to ever go to college. Another great thing is the high number of local college graduates who remain to live and work in the region. UTSA rivals UT in enrollment now, and our A&M campus is on the move. This all suggests a great future for South Texas. I look forward to reading your next installment.

  2. I admit, I go to OLLU because it’s the only Psychology program with a doctoral degree in San Antonio. And I’m finding one of its strengths is it’s a very progressive school. The Psychology program focuses on postmodern counseling theories and is non-secular. I am also seeing that OLLU has a stellar Social Work program, and USAA employees are attracted to the school for business degrees due to the agreement that USAA has with OLLU (the only university offering USAA discounts to my knowledge) which gives a 30% tuition discount under USAA’s tuition reimbursement program. My uncle went to OLLU for his Master’s in IT and he went on to be in charge of several IT departments for decades at USAA. Many like him exist at USAA, where I also work. I noticed in the financial aid office this semester, a comment from a financial aid administrator that they get many USAA students. This seems to be a large chunk of OLLU’s income- from USAA’s ed. reimbursement program. Also, I notice there are many Hispanic news reporters who have graduated from OLLU. So, these seem to be areas that the school is well-known for. I would like to see more secularism, maybe not a cross in every classroom, to go along with its Social Justice liberal arts focus and openness to LGBT activism. It does great things for low SES groups, and I hope it continues to find areas within the community that it can uniquely fill.

  3. (Correction: it’s the only university in San Antonio that offers an APA-accredited doctoral program with a license to practice.)

  4. OLLU will be just fine! The school is just getting started with its Center for Infrastructure Assurance Management and Leadership and it has the NSA/DHS designation. That’s just the beginning. The proximity to the San Antonio NSA, DHS and Lackland cybersecurity and cryptology centers is going to make OLLU even more valuable. No partnership will be necessary.

  5. I received a great education from the Lake and graduated in December 2011. There are many reasons why I went: the great undergrad psych program, the amount of financial aid I received, the small classes and school, and just the overall feel of the university itself. I will also say this: the administration has had about 10 years (from the time Pollack arrived) to get enrollment up (if you look at real stats, it has not been up as they have claimed). The admissions department in 2008 (when they recruited me) was what pushed me to go to the university. I will never forget when one of the admissions counselors traveled to my school to hand me my scholarship certificate. None of the other universities made that effort with me and it showed me that they cared. Since then, I haven’t heard many great stories about that department which makes me sad as it can be very instrumental in pushing students to go (particularly first generation Mexican-American students such as myself).

    There are some things at the university that needs to be revamped as soon as possible, and cutting 12 majors and adding unnecessary STEM majors isn’t the answer. We are not UIW; our niche was that we are grounded in a strong Social Work philosophy and we believe in helping our community and making a difference wherever we ended up. If you don’t believe that, look up the history and mission statement at the Lake and look up the history of the Worden School. Many of us who went would more than likely tell you how much we valued the liberal arts education we received. We don’t need to compete with UIW or St. Mary’s; we need to take what we already have and go with it. If UIW and St. Mary’s can take what makes them great and build upon it, why can’t the administration at the Lake do the same? It is a logical fallacy to continue to claim that STEM majors will be more marketable once someone graduates. Remember, a recession can happen at any time, and any job can go. A liberal arts and humanities education is invaluable as it allows a person with that education to be trained in multiple skills and perspectives.

    I appreciate this article as it has brought up many points. I would only disagree with your last point about partnering up or merging with the other institutions. We don’t need to do any of that. If the Lake has lasted this long, there should be ways to keep the bottom line AND keep the mission in place.

  6. A much-appreciated email from reader Gina Farrell, on the costs of living and tuition. Our original figures did not accurately address on-and-off-campus living expense calculations:

    We appreciate very much the kind words Bob Rivard included about St. Mary’s in his story on Catholic universities in San Antonio ( However, I would like to point out that the information used to compare the costs of the three universities was not apples-to-apples. Please note that the cost of attendance provided for students living off-campus are not figured consistently for each institution. In the article, costs for transportation, personal expenses and off-campus living expenses are figured into the totals for St. Mary’s and Our Lady of the Lake. Below is a more accurate comparison of costs.

    Students living on campus (tuition, fees, books, room and board):
    > Our Lady of the Lake $32,222
    > St. Mary’s $33,952
    > Incarnate Word $34,984

    Tuition and fees only:
    > Our Lady of the Lake $23,588
    > St. Mary’s $24,226
    > Incarnate Word $23,690

    Gina Farrell
    Director of Media Relations and Social Media
    Executive Editor, Gold & Blue magazine
    St. Mary’s University

  7. I liked your article. I’m glad I went to UIW. (Fall 2009-Spring 2013) For the record, every math major that didn’t change majors graduated in 4 years. …I’m pretty sure it was everyone.

    *If you write future articles about universities, some UIW programs like the popular business program offered fast track five-year masters degrees and the engineering program tacked on an extra semester of required courses credits and an internship project taking 4.5 years. Student athletes sometimes redshirted I don’t know if that was in anticipation of taking five years academically or done for their sport.

    Sam Hasselbring The Rollerblader
    P.S. I’ll be back to San Antonio sometime soon. 🙂 If not for a visit, then to live and work there.

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