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 Scholarships.com. 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.

St. Mary’s President Thomas M. Mengler Credit: Courtesy / Thomas 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.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.