How Saint Joseph's University is Tackling an Increasingly Competitive Higher Education Landscape
Some local schools are focused on how they can stand out from their high-profile neighbors.
Saint Joseph's University president Mark Reed. All Photos By Tessa Marie Images
As president of Saint Joseph’s University, Mark Reed could hardly be blamed for focusing all of his attention on its City Avenue campus. But Reed is by no means a myopic man. Though he spent much of his professional career away from the area, he grew up in Montgomery County, went to St. Joseph’s Prep and is quite familiar with the crowded Catholic collegiate landscape in our region.
So, while his primary focus is obviously Saint Joe’s, he can’t help but see the university in a greater context. And these days, that can be a little scary.
As tuition costs rise, and state schools become more enticing options for college-bound students and their sticker-shocked families, the glut of Catholic institutions suggests a coming shakeout that could lead to mergers or closings.
Reed knows he and his staff must operate within a shifting landscape while boosting the Saint Joe’s brand in the growing shadow of NCAA darling Villanova University several miles to the west. “We have to make sure we’re not distracted by too much of that,” he says. “We’re executing our own plan.”
Those sentiments are a common refrain among many of the 30-plus local colleges and universities as they try to differentiate themselves at a vital time in the history of post-secondary education. As college loan debt cripples millions of graduates and the number of schools remains quite high, it’s imperative that institutions like Saint Joe’s create compelling pitches to potential applicants. Just being “Philadelphia’s Jesuit University” isn’t enough—especially as the area’s primary Augustinian university, Villanova, is soaring on a blur of national acclaim and campus expansion, successfully moving from regional to national in scope.
But expanding too broadly can lead to a crisis of scale and sustainability. “We have no desire to be all things to all people,” Reed says.
Four decades ago, many people saw Saint Joe’s as a commuter school. There are still old-school Hawks from that era for whom Villanova is a sore subject—even beyond the basketball court.
In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the two schools had distinct similarities. Each had its share of commuters, both were defined by their local presence with limited regional appeal, and the friction created by the city-vs.-Main Line dichotomy was quite real.
Today, things are different. U.S. News and World Report has Villanova tied for 49th among national colleges, a list that also includes the University of Pennsylvania at ninth overall. Meanwhile, Saint Joe’s is ranked 12th among northern regional universities, a much more tightly defined grouping. Villanova has an acceptance rate of 27 percent, while Saint Joe’s is 75. Recent construction has increased Nova’s curb appeal, much of it funded by a capital campaign that raised a staggering $759 million. Saint Joe’s, meanwhile, is about to execute a more modest strategic plan designed to bolster its footprint. The school has managed to increase its endowment from $200 to $300 million in five years, according to Reed, who understands the circumstances and doesn’t hide from them. “I have fun with it,” he says. “The rivalry piece is fun.”
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When it comes to the future, Saint Joseph’s University may be in same boat as the region’s other Catholic institutions—barring Villanova. At a time when higher education is more competitive than ever, it’s largely unfeasible that smaller independent schools like Rosemont and Chestnut Hill colleges, not to mention Gwynedd Mercy, Neumann, Cabrini, Immaculata and Holy Family universities, will survive in their current forms. Some might close; others could merge. “Do I think there will be a shakeout? The easy answer is to say ‘yes,’” says Reed. “I do believe the answer is yes. And I think it’s already happening.”
For Reed, it’s crucial to stay focused. “We look at opportunities, and we look at our strategic plan. What does our strategic plan call us to do? Focus on, first and foremost, our academic quality and the experience we provide. From there, it moves into the student experience, and is the student experience truly delivering on what we say we are and what we provide. Does this provide the value that we articulate?”
And what of the debate over the importance of athletics to a university’s success? Some adhere to the “front porch” stance, which suggests that successful sports programs bring eyes to the school and boost admissions. Others believe athletics can be beneficial, but a school’s academic reputation, location, evidence of student happiness and other factors are far more important.
While that tug-of-war plays out, the Saint Joe’s men’s basketball program is moving forward with new coach Billy Lange, who’s been hired to take over for Phil Martelli. The university fired Martelli on March 19—Saint Joseph’s Day—after a 34-year career at the school, the last 24 as head coach. The way it was handled was not received well locally, as there was no established long-term succession plan.
Not long after the Martelli firing, the school jettisoned highly respected sports information director Marie Wozniak—much to the consternation of veteran media types who’d enjoyed strong working relationships with both. Among the other changes at Saint Joe’s, Jill Bodensteiner took over as athletic director in June 2018, replacing Don DiJulia, who’d served in that capacity for 35 years and whose body of work established him as one of the nation’s foremost ADs.
Operating as a local and regional concern, the school’s athletic program needed upgrades in facilities, marketing and its overall approach to business. In an interview with Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski earlier this year, Bodensteiner reported that when she was hired, department expenses topped out at $21 million and revenues were $4 million.
Martelli has said that when Bodensteiner’s called him into her office the day he was let go, he expected a discussion on next steps and what he believed would be a bounce-back season. Granted, Martelli had a strong overall record: 444 wins and seven NCAA tournament appearances. And his dedication to the institution and rock-solid standing in the local basketball community was undeniable. Still, some saw the move as justified, given that the Hawks have gone 41-55 over the past three seasons.
When she spoke with Sielski, Bodensteiner refuted the notion that she’d blindsided Martelli. “Everybody in this department knows exactly where they stand and has since the day I got here,” she said, while also noting that, “in some ways, mediocrity had become the rule.”
It’s no secret that Villanova’s two national titles have spurred interest in the institution. Bodensteiner can’t promise similar success, but she sees the program as a gateway to the school for many. “Men’s basketball should align with the university’s goals of building community and building the brand,” she says. “It should be part of what attracts students. It should bring alumni back. We saw what [success] did at Loyola Chicago and for UMBC (both of which earned recent NCAA tournament headlines). It can generate excitement."
St. Joseph's University athletic director Jill Bodensteiner.
That’s not likely to happen this year, as the Hawks are facing what could be a drastic step back. Martelli’s ouster led to an exodus of current and recruited players—most notably starting guard Lamarr Kimble, who transferred to the University of Louisville. But Bodensteiner is thinking more long term. She envisions improved facilities, including a practice center tacked onto the back of Hagan Arena. She also wants to reestablish a commitment to supporting and branding the school’s overall program, which has taken on something of a mom-and-pop personality of late.
Those ideas come straight from Notre Dame University, Bodensteiner’s alma mater and former employer, which has effectively used athletics to promote and improve the university. “Being good is no longer the same thing as it was last year,” Bodensteiner says. “Students are choosing schools on Instagram. Part of being good now is continuing to evolve.”
When Michael Gaynor began working for Villanova’s office of undergraduate admissions back in 1982, he was three years removed from his graduation from Saint Joe’s. That year, a modest 6,914 students applied for 1,657 spots at Nova. Thirty-seven years later, 22,881 applications flooded his office, and the number of openings has increased by just 18. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” Gaynor says.
Nonetheless, the school has experienced some amazing growth. “It’s not lost on us how extremely fortunate we are,” says Gaynor. “I subscribe to the adage that there are two types of people: Those who are humble and those who are about to be.”
Villanova’s growth has been a result of many things—not just basketball success, says Gaynor. Still, there’s no denying its impact. In 2016, Bloomberg Businessweek named Villanova’s undergraduate business school number one in the country, and the school is now a national player in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. The campus has new dorms, an arts center and more, and $62 million went to upgrading the basketball arena.
Last year, 57,500 visitors came to the Villanova campus. Among the students who do get in and decide to matriculate, 96 percent of them stick around. But Gaynor maintains that some things haven’t changed. “We still have that small-college hustle,” Gaynor says. “We don’t take anything for granted. We’re still relationship building for the long haul.”
For the 2019-20 school year, Villanova received applications from all 50 states and Puerto Rico, plus 112 countries. Tuition was $54,550, and unlike many schools, Nova doesn’t discount much (although it does attempt to meet students’ demonstrated financial needs). Men’s basketball coach Jay Wright has said that his program strives to reflect the school’s personality and ideals. Because of that, he and his staff eliminate about half of the top recruits in the nation every year because they don’t fit the university’s mission.
But what happens if Wright accepts one of the many offers he’s received from larger school like UCLA, which reportedly promised to double his salary? The hoops program could lose its elite status. And there’s no guarantee Villanova will retain its top spot in the Bloomberg rankings. “We’re all concerned about growing too fast, but that doesn’t dominate our thinking,” say Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson. “Our president understands our culture and understands the balance of growth and being responsible.”
There’s another Big 5 growth story happening in our region. In the early part of this decade, Temple University was receiving fewer than 30,000 applications for its freshman class. Now, it’s nearing 40,000. At a time when parents are steering away from steeper private school tuitions, state institutions are gaining favor. The University of Pittsburgh received a record number of applications for the 2019-20 school year—31,198 for a class of 4,205—and though Penn State’s application total dropped slightly, it still hovers around 100,000.
Though the discount rate at Saint Joe’s is about the national average, according to Reed, private colleges aren’t for everybody. “I always tell students, ‘There’s a lot of noise out there in this process, whether it’s guidance counselors, teachers, others,’” he says. “This is an important decision you’re going to make. It may or may not be the most important decision of your life. You’ve got to block out the noise. What do you feel the right fit is? Where do you think you can be successful? We’re fortunate at Saint Joe’s, with our retention numbers, our graduation numbers—students have a lot of success here.”
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Temple isn’t worried about its status within the local hierarchy. The school has made significant strides over the past two decades and wants to continue its growth in applications and academic reputation. “We have a grittiness to us,” says Patrick Kraft, Temple’s athletic director. “We work hard, and that resonates with our ‘Temple Tough’ attitude. That doesn’t mean we’re getting into bar fights—it means we’re making the right decisions.”
La Salle University has a similar inward focus. It wants to be the best version of itself—a mantra repeated across the area. “I look at the opportunities that are here, the value in education we’re able to offer and the ability for us to transform lives,” La Salle athletic director Brian Baptiste says. “As I interact with alums, that’s one of the consistent things I hear, how the experience at La Salle transformed their lives and their families.”
It’s about finding an identity—and, perhaps most importantly, a value proposition that allows for sustainability in a jam-packed higher-educational climate. Reinvention can bring excitement, but it can also create confusion. And, these days, if you stay too grounded in traditional messaging, you risk irrelevance. “We just have to sharpen our focus a little,” Saint Joe’s Reed admits. “This is a very, very competitive market. As a result, being good is not enough. We have to do some things differently, like any good institution would do. We have something to build upon.”
Among the region’s Catholic universities, there may well be a shakeout coming. In response, smaller schools have been offering course credit to high school students in hopes of attracting applications from those who like what they see and appreciate the value of what they’ve acquired. Saint Joe’s will move forward with its strategic plan in an attempt to make its campus more vibrant and its academic profile stronger. It has turned to Bodensteiner to create an athletic program that resembles those mid-major departments that thrive on the fields and courts—one that also generates more revenue from fans and alumni who embrace the experience. “I think it’s helpful to focus on what other institutions are doing, because you get inspired and you get ideas,” Reed says. “But if everybody is chasing something, it worries me. We want to make sure we’re not distracted by too much of that.”