Del Rio native Luis Falcon works three days a week at Textron Aviation in San Antonio and spends the other days going to school and studying. At 19, he’s about to graduate with two associate degrees and is on his way to earning licenses that will net him a full-time job by the time he turns 20 in January.
Though it's been challenging, Falcon said, the fast pace is exactly why he chose Hallmark University. And when he walks the stage with about 100 other graduates Saturday, Falcon is confident he will have received a level of schooling sure to help him reach his goals.
Founded here in 1969 as an aviation mechanics school located at Stinson Field, Hallmark is today a private university specializing in graduate and undergraduate degree programs that prepare students for careers in some of the most in-demand occupations in the city: aeronautics, health care, business, and technology.
It is not a national chain or a for-profit vocational school, the likes of which the Department of Education began scrutinizing in 2016. Hallmark converted from for-profit to nonprofit in 2014. Tax records show the school took in nearly $15 million in program service revenues in 2016.
Accredited through the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, the institution is also not a Christian university, as some may speculate, though the school’s mission is built on faith and character education, said Brent Fessler, Hallmark University president.
“When we ask employers to rank skills and character and which is most important, character always comes back as No. 1,” he said last week while guiding the Rivard Report on a tour of the main campus and past signs about integrity and dependability. “So we have a character development program, and it’s not just on the walls.”
About 500 to 600 students are enrolled in Hallmark's day and evening programs, with no more than 30 per class. The school also offers online courses and operates two campuses. The main campus is on Interstate 10 near Huebner Road for its business, tech, and nursing programs. The other is an aviation school on Wetmore Road near the San Antonio International Airport.
Aside from traditional lectures going on throughout the day, both schools look more like a traditional workplace. Business students attend classes in conference-style rooms, and there are several tech labs for courses in cybersecurity and tech certification programs.
Even the nursing program has its own hospital “wing,” where patient beds occupied by lifelike mannequins programmed with vital signs are arranged around a realistic nurses station.
That is by design, Fessler said. “Hands-on, scenario-based education means the more we can make the learning environment the same as the work environment, the better the educational experience. So that means the tools you use, the scenarios you cover, the physical environment, all those things.”
Fessler has led the university for 11 years alongside CEO/Chancellor Joe Fisher. A graduate of Trinity University, Fessler worked in project engineering at Southwest Research Institute before joining the Hallmark leadership team. His 18-year-old son is currently enrolled in Hallmark’s cybersecurity program.
“Here, I get to see somebody’s life change because of my work and all the work we do,” Fessler said. “But ... it’s more than just that person’s life changing; we see generations change. Just the amount of impact we can have is incredible.”
Hallmark has the highest income mobility index of any university in San Antonio, according to Fessler. In other words, Hallmark students are more likely to see a substantial income increase than students who attended another institution. “That comes both from all of our degrees leading to high-demand industries, but also from serving students who are low-income,” Fessler said.
About 30 percent of Hallmark students start from the “bottom incomes,” he added. “So those are students who are college-ready, but when they attend a traditional university, they succeed at less than 20 percent. Here, they succeed at a rate of over 50 percent.”
Every university, he feels, does a good job of determining if a student is smart enough to succeed. “But they don’t do a great job of determining what else is going to get in their way,” Fessler said. “Are they a single mom? How are they going to get to school? Are they working? Are they living on the edge?”
In fact, with the average age at 30, most Hallmark students are juggling work and school, and 34 percent of the student population is made up of veterans who use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to fund their education. Many vets are attracted to its programs in cybersecurity and other tech certifications.
The tuition price tag is high – up to $16,000 a year for an associate degree and $23,000 for a bachelor’s. A majority of students qualify for Title IV financial aid in the form of grants and both federally subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
But Hallmark bills its method of providing compressed degree plans – students can earn an associate degree in 14 months, versus the national average 24 months, or 28 months for a bachelor’s degree – as both a time and money saver. The faster a student graduates, the sooner he or she can enter the workforce and start collecting a paycheck.
Last year, 93 percent of Hallmark graduates had jobs within a year of completing their education. In the past 24 years, more than 500 Hallmark students have gone to work for VT San Antonio Aerospace (formerly known as Dee Howard). Aviation mechanics like Falcon, many of whom have jobs already lined up when they graduate, either in San Antonio or elsewhere, see starting annual salaries of $40,000 or more.
Students also don’t flail or take classes they don’t need. “We really don’t have students enrolled at the institution and figure it out later,” Fessler said. “We’re putting the throttles down, so you’ve got to know your destination before you take off. No undecideds.”
And though Hallmark students are known to volunteer in the community, they don’t play intramural sports, try out for school plays, or join clubs or PanHellenic organizations like students at other universities. “If it doesn’t add value, we don’t do it,” Fessler said.
In October, the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce recognized Hallmark as “education institution of the year" at its 22nd annual awards event. Hallmark was one of nine business leaders awarded for the contributions and leadership in various industries.
"We received the most nominations for this category which reflects how key education is to our business community," said Cristina Aldrete, North San Antonio Chamber CEO. "Hallmark University won ... because of their ability to create relevant and quality courses based around the needs of San Antonio’s businesses."
The university is a key ingredient in the city's economic development efforts as well, said Romanita Matta-Barrera, SA Works executive director. “Hallmark’s focus on IT, cybersecurity, aeronautics, and health care aligns with San Antonio’s high growth industries and demand occupations," she said. "As we continue to align education and industry, we are increasingly equipped to address industry needs today and in the future by building a sustainable workforce pipeline in San Antonio.”
As a nonprofit, Hallmark relies on tuition income for its core services while fund-raising for new projects. In 2017, Hallmark began partnering with the North East Independent School District to help high school students start early on a career path.
The Aero CHI (College Headstart Initiative) is a Federal Aviation Administration-approved program that allows juniors and seniors to attend classes tuition-free at Hallmark’s aviation school and earn more than 30 credit hours toward an aviation maintenance degree.
Next year, Hallmark plans to kick off Cyberforce Prime, a tuition-free program that will bring cybersecurity education to young adults on the East Side. Hallmark’s local employer-partners have agreed to offer graduates a job when they complete the program, and Hallmark will award students an automatic acceptance to a degree program at the school.
Also coming soon for Hallmark is a more robust online university and a residential option, both of which Fessler said will broaden the school’s regional scope. The plan for student housing is dependent on an upcoming capital campaign.