Winter 2023 Feature-The Two-Year College
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Serving the Next Generation of Students 

Catholic two-year colleges provide accessibility 

By Michael Hahn, Ph.D.

In an effort to increase access to Catholic higher education, several Catholic universities have established two-year colleges. The addition of two-year associate’s degrees contribute to the diverse offerings at the more than two hundred Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.  

Tom Neitzke, SJ, EdD, Dean, Arrupe College, Loyola University Chicago, with studentsLoyola University of Chicago opened Arrupe College in the fall of 2015. Named for Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J., who served as superior general of the Society of Jesus (1965-1983) and prioritized work with the poor and marginalized, Arrupe College offers associate’s degrees in liberal arts, business, and social and behavioral sciences.

“We did great work with the Nativity model for primary education and the Christo Rey model for high schools in terms of affordability and accessibility,” said Father Thomas Neitzke, S.J., the dean of Arrupe College since 2020. “Our next challenge was creating a pathway into higher education for lower income, first-generation college students.” Most students at Arrupe College receive federal and state grants and complete their degree with no debt.  

Dougherty Family College at the University of St. Thomas opened in the fall of 2017. Its curriculum fulfills the requirements of the core curriculum of the University of St. Thomas as well as the Minnesota transfer curriculum. The goal is to prepare students to continue their studies to earn a bachelor’s degree either at the University of St. Thomas or another four-year university, which 75 percent of graduates have done. The college intends to expand its curriculum to include pre-STEM and pre-business concentrations.

Planning for two additional Catholic two-year colleges is underway at Boston College and Fairfield University. Messina College of Boston College is set to welcome one hundred students at the start of the 2024-2025 academic year. Fairfield University is partnering with the Diocese of Bridgeport to open Bellarmine Campus, a two-year associate’s degree program and community hub on the site of a former parish in Bridgeport.

The leaders of Catholic two-year colleges point to mission as the reason for their founding. “A two-year associate’s degree program of this model is pure mission, and it is the heart of this university,” said Neitzke. “It is an expensive model. But it means that we put our money where our mouth is when we talk about mission.” 

Dougherty Family College students (Photo credit: University of St. Thomas, photographer Mark Brown)Buffy Smith, Ph.D., dean of Dougherty Family College, describes her role as a “calling.” Before being selected as dean, Smith was a faculty member in the sociology department at the University of St. Thomas. “Social problems are not divine. We cause them. We also have the capacity to solve them,” said Smith. “If you do the right things for the right reasons, God opens up the path.” 

The original mission of many Catholic colleges and universities was to serve their local population. “The downside of the success of Catholic higher education in the United States is that our schools have become more elite and less affordable,” said Father Kevin O’Brien, S.J., the vice provost and executive director of Bellarmine Campus. He explains that the Jesuits originally intended to establish a school in Bridgeport. “So, in a way, we are returning to our roots,” he said. The campus in Bridgeport is accessible by public transportation and will be connected to Fairfield University by shuttle.

“If you do the right things for the right reasons, God opens up the path.” 

The founding dean of Messina College, Father Erick Berrelleza, S.J., is eager to serve a new audience of students living in the Boston area. “At the heart of what we are doing with Messina College goes back to our history as an institution in Boston,” he said. “We want the students who come to our program to know that Boston College is their home too. This is where they belong.”

Tom Neitzke, SJ, EdD, Dean, Arrupe College, Loyola University Chicago, with graduating studentDesigned to offer degrees that are achievable, accessible, and affordable, Catholic two-year colleges seek to serve populations of students who are underrepresented in higher education. “It’s really hard to recruit students who have a 2.5 G.P.A. and don’t think they can afford college, but’s that’s our student,” said Neitzke. The recruitment and retention of African American students remains a priority at Arrupe College. Students of color make up 95 percent of the enrollment at Dougherty Family College. Smith, herself a first-generation college student, believes that the education attainment gap is solvable. “But we cannot stop at breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty,” she said. “Education helps to build generational wealth.” 

Students at Catholic two-year colleges are achieving academic success. Arrupe College recruits a class of two hundred students each year with a retention rate of 70 percent and a graduate rate of 50 percent, which is twice that of other two-year colleges in Illinois. Since its founding, Dougherty Family College boasts a graduation rate of 56 percent with a current enrollment of 160 students.

In addition to providing tutoring and other academic support, Catholic two-year colleges serve a variety of student needs. Arrupe College added a housing program in response to growing housing insecurity. The program started with twenty students last year and has since grown to thirty-six students. Located on the former campus of Pine Manor College, Messina College will offer a fully residential program. Dougherty Family College provides students with laptops, transportation vouchers, meals, and textbooks.

A persistent challenge for Catholic two-year colleges is countering the narrative that Catholic higher education is unaffordable. “We are in our eighth year,” said Neitzke, “and there’s always a story in the newspaper around graduation time about a low-income student who gets into Harvard or Yale, and that’s a great story. But there’s never a story about the high school kid who is just making it and gets into a college like Arrupe.” 

Collaboration is essential for the success of Catholic two-year colleges. Bellarmine Campus is the result of Fairfield University’s strategic partnership with the Diocese of Bridgeport, “Pathways to Higher Learning.” Students will be recruited from Catholic high schools and parishes in the diocese. While two-year colleges benefit from the resources of larger universities, Neitzke hears from colleagues who were attracted to Loyola University because of Arrupe College. “They want to work at a place that is working to make the education that we believe in so fully is available to the broadest group of students.” Berrelleza is grateful for the support of Boston College and the many individuals who have supported the design of Messina College. “Building a new college is exhilarating,” he said, “but you can't do it alone.”    

Michael Hahn, Ph.D. is the assistant dean of the school of education at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. He recently authored “The Catholic University in the Modern World” published in Hesburgh of Notre Dame: Assessments of a Legacy co-edited by Todd Ream and Michael James.


Photographs courtesy of[Top and bottom photographs] Loyola University Chicago and [Middle photograph of students:] University of St. Thomas (Photographer Mark Brown)