ST. LEO — When Arthur Kirk became president of what was then Saint Leo College in 1997, the school was on the brink of bankruptcy. Enrollment had dropped; deficits had climbed. Faculty salaries were depressed. It seemed that every roof on campus leaked.
This was during the first heady months of the dot-com boom, and Kirk believed the Web could help solve Saint Leo’s financial woes.
Saint Leo launched its online education program in the fall of 1998. The school pulled together $600,000 to create the Web infrastructure, cutting a few campus programs in the process and delaying brick-and-mortar repairs. Saint Leo made just $90,000 in online revenue that first year.
Now, most Saint Leo University students take some, or all, of their classes online. And enrollment at the Catholic college has nearly doubled in 20 years, from 7,500 in 1997 to 14,600 in 2016. Only a small portion of those students step foot on Saint Leo’s main campus west of Dade City.
And Saint Leo is endeavoring to grow even more, particularly on the national level, by marketing itself as a university that can provide a faith-based education to any student, anywhere.
“I got tired of having people ask me where Saint Leo was. ‘Rural central Florida’ didn’t really resonate,” said William Lennox Jr., Saint Leo’s president since 2015. “So I’ve changed my answer: We are where you need us to be.”
• • •
Saint Leo was established as Florida’s first Catholic college in 1889 after Edmund Dunne, founder of a nearby Catholic colony that is now the city of San Antonio in eastern Pasco County, donated 36 acres for the creation of a Benedictine college and monastery.
Saint Leo leaders like to point out that the school welcomed underserved communities from the start. The college enrolled a black student from Cuba in 1898, when it was still illegal for black and white students to take classes together. And Saint Leo has long catered to members of the armed services. It went through three cycles as a military school from 1890 to 1920. Students were called cadets and wore gray uniforms to class.
During the Vietnam War, when the military’s popularity plummeted, Saint Leo opened education centers at the Avon Park Bombing Range, MacDill Airforce Base and four other bases. And in the 1970s, the college broadened its scope, offering weekend and night classes to working adults.
Kirk had the armed services in mind when he proposed a robust online program in the ’90s. It was a population the college already was serving. And, by nature of their jobs, members of the military demanded elastic school schedules.
At the time, Saint Leo was riding a burgeoning wave of online education, which within a decade would see explosive growth, in large part the result of for-profit schools. By 2015, 63 percent of all institutions of higher education said online education was a critical part of their long-term strategy, according to the Babson Research Survey Group.
Now, one-third of Saint Leo’s students are veterans, currently serving in the military or spouses of military members. Most of the rest are working adults.
“More and more of our students are mid-career folks who want to better themselves,” Lennox said. “We’ve been in that business for a long time. We do it well.”
For all its emphasis on online education, Saint Leo has maintained the feel of a quaint private college at its main campus, and boasts the usual amenities: competitive sports, Greek life, on-campus housing, a student center, a library. Just under 12 percent of students are enrolled at the main campus; 1,600 live there.
The college also has more than 40 education centers —- on military bases, at state colleges or as standalone campuses — in seven states.
Saint Leo’s flexible format allows students like Kaitlin Dee, a 27-year-old single mom from Hudson, to attend classes close to home.
Dee dropped out of college at 19 when she had her son, Jayden. After surviving and escaping domestic abuse at the hands of her little boy’s father, she says, she decided to pursue a career in social work. She wanted to help women like herself. So at 22, she enrolled at Pasco-Hernando State College.
After receiving her associate’s degree, it was time to consider where she would go for her bachelor’s. She could take classes at the University of South Florida in Tampa — a cheaper option, without financial aid — but doing so would require an hour-long commute.
Saint Leo seemed like a practical choice, as it was already on the state college campus in Spring Hill and she could take a mix of in-person and online classes.
“Saint Leo really emphasized their program through PHSC,” she said. It was a “warm and open” Saint Leo counselor who helped her make up her mind.
She took one online class a semester and studied at night while Jayden played in the living room The rest of the classes were on campus, where she made friends and got involved with a social work club. Now she’s working toward her master’s at Saint Leo.
“We really do feel like students of the university,” Dee said, “even if we aren’t on campus.”
• • •
That ideal — being part of something while still being able to study remotely — is the brand Saint Leo promotes through its new division, WorldWide, which encompasses all online and education center programs.
Saint Leo WorldWide streamlines services provided to students taking classes at its centers and online. As recently as 2015, these students were served by separate divisions of the university.
“All Saint Leo recruiters and education counselors work for the entire university now,” Lennox said. “Before, online was sort of competing against the centers.”
The idea, Lennox said, is to provide the same services to everyone — such as advising and the opportunity to join clubs — regardless of class location.
Saint Leo has intensified its marketing efforts in tandem with the restructuring. Five years ago, each education center advertised in its immediate area on a limited basis, said university spokeswoman Mary McCoy. Saint Leo has since launched nationwide campaigns. The school is targeting 28 markets in 13 states, according to the administration.
And the college has increased its recruiting staff by 20 percent, freeing up representatives to visit more Catholic high schools across the United States.
Saint Leo is particularly focused on expanding in the Northeast and Chicago, where interest in Catholic education is most prevalent, said Melanie Storms, who was appointed the first vice president of WorldWide in 2016. Take a ride on a New York subway, and you might see a Saint Leo ad. The college also advertises on the radio and TV in those regions.
Saint Leo’s Catholic identity is what attracts many of its students, Storms said. Benedictine values, such as community and stewardship, are woven into classes.
“If you look at the largest online providers of education,” she said, “there’s no one that has the identity that we have in terms of being faith-based.”
And the price — $21,000 a year for tuition and fees, before financial aid — gives Saint Leo a competitive edge among small Catholic colleges. Fordham University in the Bronx costs more than twice that amount.
Lennox stressed that growth will not come at the expense of quality, and that classes will continue to be capped at 20 students per instructor.
If quality can be judged by rankings, that claim appears to hold true, so far. U.S. News & World Reportranked Saint Leo at No. 62 among regional universities in the South in 2017, up from No. 71 in 2016. That places the school in the middle of the pack when compared to the 104 other schools in that category, which were judged by factors such as graduation and retention rates, faculty resources and the opinions of higher education administrators.
• • •
Now more than ever, being competitive is in Saint Leo’s best interest, Lennox said. Enrollment across U.S. higher education institutions has fallen each year for the past half-decade, and the number of high school graduates is predicted to decline over the next 20 years.
Saint Leo’s financial footing is solid, administrators say. And they want to keep it that way.
“We’re watching schools struggle all over the higher ed sector,” Storms said.
She cited Barry University in Miami, a Catholic college that saw its enrollment drop by 24 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to the Miami Herald. And Saint Joseph’s College, a private religious school in Indiana, closed in February due to debt.
Saint Leo is somewhat cradled by its identity as a military-friendly college, something the school hopes to increasingly capitalize upon in the coming years. The college has education centers on 14 bases.
The Army and Navy are the smallest they’ve been since 1940, Lennox noted. But he predicts the military will grow again, and Saint Leo will be poised to teach its members. The school has sent proposals for education centers to several additional bases over the past year. And Saint Leo has broadened its discounted tuition rate for active-duty service members to military spouses, the Army National Guard and the reserves.
“It’s the group that needs our flexibility the most,” Lennox said. “It’s a very honorable opportunity for us.”
Members of the military are increasingly encouraged to pursue higher education. Under the Army’s new non-commissioned officer education system, sergeants must demonstrate a proficiency in skills such as writing before being promoted.
Jonathan Ashton, a nuclear machinist mate in the Navy, can speak to this trend. The 33-year-old graduated from Saint Leo with a bachelor’s in business administration in 2016. He took his classes online, in between helping care for a new baby, working full time and singing at church. He often would study until 1 or 2 a.m.
Ashton is now based in Norfolk, Va. He said his degree boosts his chances of rising in rank and pay grade. Or he may choose to retire from the military in a few years.
In that case, he will be armed with a business degree that could help him pursue his dream job: owning a microbrewery.