Arrupe College Four-year success story

Coming full circle

One morning in May, Father Stephen Katsouros, S.J., the dean and executive director of Arrupe College, stepped into a conference room on the third floor of Maguire Hall. In the middle of the table was a black letterbox, and the first sheet of paper in that box was an email the dean had printed out earlier in the day. Katsouros grabbed the note and read from it energetically, a lingering New York accent coating his vowels. It was from Daisy Virrueta, an Arrupe alum who was finishing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Commencement, she reminded her old mentor, was just around the corner. “I would be glad if you could make it to my graduation,” she wrote, “because if it wasn’t for all that Arrupe gave me, I would not be where I’m at today. Thank you so much for all of your help.”

Less than five years after Arrupe opened its doors, promising a rigorous associate’s degree program for students who otherwise could not afford a Jesuit education, a significant chunk of its inaugural class (Virrueta included) were graduating from four-year colleges—on time and with a manageable debt load. When talking about it, Katsouros could hardly contain his glee. “These students can get into the workforce, can start making money. They are off and running, alright?” He leaned back in his chair, flashing a 1,000-watt smile. “This is one of the best stories in higher education right now.”


A model of success

More than 80 percent of Arrupe graduates who go on to seek bachelor’s degrees will graduate within five years, compared to the national average of 27 percent for low-income transfer students

Pairing talent with opportunity

Katsouros—candid and exuberant, with sharp blue eyes—is Arrupe’s chief evangelist. A veteran Jesuit educator, he’s of the firm belief that something revolutionary is taking place inside the sturdy and unassuming brick building on Pearson Street, steps from the glitz of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. It’s undeniable that today’s job market greatly favors those who finish college. Yet the cost of attendance has spiraled out of control, wildly outpacing inflation. For a huge slice of the school-age population, a bachelor’s degree is both less accessible and more crucial than ever before. Too many college campuses struggle to reflect the nation’s diversity.

Arrupe is Loyola University Chicago’s attempt to curb this pernicious trend. Named for Father Pedro Arrupe, a Spanish Jesuit who spent his life serving the marginalized, it was designed as a bridge program for students with the capacity and motivation to thrive in college but who could use extra financial or educational support to do so. Thanks to a combination of fundraising, grants, and financial aid, admitted students need only contribute roughly $2,000 per year.

Most who enroll tend to be first-generation students of color from working-class families in or around Chicago. More than 1,000 applied for Arrupe’s initial 160 seats, demonstrating the demand. “Our students are not being wooed by other institutions,” Katsouros wrote in his book, Come to Believe: How the Jesuits are Reinventing Education (Again). “That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth wooing.”

From dream to reality

When Katsouros moved to Chicago in 2014, Arrupe was still an idealistic, back-of-the-envelope idea. Putting the infrastructure in place to start classes felt like launching a start-up, equal-parts exhilarating and exhausting. An advisory board was formed. Six mission-driven professors were hired. Those new faculty members constructed a curriculum that aligned with Loyola’s general requirements. Money was raised, orientation planned, potential students recruited and interviewed. Jacky Cruz, then a senior at Lane Tech High School in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood, was exploring her collegiate options and attended as many Arrupe open house meetings as she could. She needed to know exactly how this pie-in-the-sky school would operate.

“When we started that July, we didn’t have offices. We didn’t know how to print,” remembered Minerva Ahumada, a clinical assistant professor of philosophy. “We were putting the plane together and flying it at the same time.”

There was pedagogical freedom, though, in starting from scratch. “By and large, we were writing our own ticket,” said Daniel Burke, a clinical assistant professor of literature and writing. “We could dream so much about what we wanted this place to be.”

The students felt it too. “We were working together to build this foundation for classes to come,” added Asya Meadows, a member of Arrupe’s first cohort.

Jacky Cruz

Taking lessons from Arrupe to a massive state university

Asya Meadows

Building her future at her new school, Loyola University Chicago

Putting the pieces together

What Arrupe became was a lean and reliable incubator for undervalued academic talent. At Arrupe, students follow one of three degree tracks: liberal arts, social and behavioral sciences, or business administration. They take courses four days per week in morning or afternoon blocks, a schedule that’s both structured and predictable (a bonus for folks juggling jobs, sometimes lengthy commutes, and personal obligations). Two years in, students will have earned 62 fully transferable credits—37 hours of general education core requirements, 15 hours of pre-major concentration classes or electives, and 10 hours of Arrupe mission-related requirements (theology, philosophy). Should they choose to, Arrupe alums typically enter a four-year university with both junior standing and the imprimatur of Loyola attached to their associate’s degrees.

Retention is a fixation at Arrupe. When he started, Brandon Thomas—a classmate of Meadows and Cruz—was preoccupied with maintaining academic momentum. “That was the number one concern for me,” he said. “If I would start this journey, am I going to stop after two years?”

Katsouros describes the school’s culture as deliberately “high-touch.” Class sizes are modest. Each new student takes a mandatory summer retreat and a one-credit course their first term that covers on-campus resources, note-taking, and time management skills. On the premises, there’s a writing center, a peer tutoring center, a career counselor, a graduate support coordinator, and multiple social workers on call. Every matriculant receives a laptop that can be serviced by Loyola’s IT staff, putting all students on an even technological playing field. When classes are in session, free breakfast and lunch is provided. These are resources that everyone needs to thrive, but which are often taken for granted in more traditional academic environments.

By that same token, teaching at Arrupe is necessarily distinct from most jobs in academia. Arrupe’s 20 professors jointly serve as advisors with expansive office hours, fielding requests that run the gamut, from basic coursework assistance to heavy topics like finances, home instability, and stress. It can feel all-encompassing. “We were always very specific about the idea that we didn’t want to offer remedial classes,” said Burke. “But that means the differentiation of preparedness is wide.”

Ahumada—hired right before Burke, in 2015—is a warm presence in the classroom. A native of Mexico with a stylish haircut and a calm demeanor, she earned her doctorate at Loyola and cut her teeth at the massive LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York. During discussions, Ahumada takes her time teasing out ideas, demanding and then holding her pupils’ attention. It’s her ambition to make esoteric concepts, like social contract theory, feel relevant. She knows everybody’s name, knows their strengths, knows all that’s sitting on their plates. “It’s an amazing place to work at, but it’s not easy-breezy,” said Ahumada. “Every time a student comes in, they come in with their own social and political reality. How to respond to that has been puzzling, amazing, and tiring.”

Brandon Thomas

Finding his way, to help others eventually do the same


Fully transferable credits

We could dream so much about what we wanted this place to be.’
— Daniel Burke, clinical assistant professor, Arrupe College

An ongoing evolution

This innovative model, still a major outlier in higher education, is proving successful and sustainable. Nationally, 13 percent of community colleges students graduate in two years. At Arrupe, that figure hovers around 50 percent. (It jumps to 65 percent after three years.) And of Arrupe’s first wave of graduates, more than 90 percent are expected to complete their bachelor’s degrees by the spring of 2020, just six semesters after leaving Arrupe. “I marvel at our students,” Katsouros said. “I think they are positively impacting Jesuit higher education as a whole.”

Burke and Ahumada are just as jazzed to see what the future holds. “We’re done with the phase where we have to build new things only to solve problems,” Burke said. The staff, in other words, has the flexibility to launch entirely fresh initiatives. Internally, administrators recently compiled and released an advising handbook for faculty members, illustrating how best to reach and care for students in need. On the curriculum side, Arrupe has added a host of STEM classes after the student body expressed a growing interest in health, engineering, and technology fields. (This fall, the school will begin offering a pre-STEM concentration within its liberal arts major; a pre-nursing track is also in the works.)

Professors have started coordinating across departments, linking classes along thematic lines. Burke, for example, recently taught a literature class focused on post-apocalyptic narratives, while an environmental science professor explored the risk of climate change with the same students. The Institute for the International Education of Students, meanwhile, has started funding Arrupe’s first study abroad program, a 10-day summer tour of the route of St. Ignatius, beginning with a trip to the Basque Country and ending with an extended stay in Barcelona.

A seed has been planted

Slowly and tentatively, a collegiate culture is even starting to develop, a tricky task at a two-year school made up entirely of commuters. Wintrust Commons, on Maguire’s first floor, opened two years ago, a shiny student dining and communal space that has quickly become a hub for breaking bread and collaborating. Student relationships are cemented on campus, and then after hours, on social media and FaceTime. To Blanca Rodriguez, a 2017 Arrupe graduate, “it felt like a home away from home.”

Burke still receives term paper drafts from students who have moved on, anxious juniors and seniors who lean on a teacher they trust. Every semester since Arrupe opened, he’s gone out for high tea or a meal with a handful of students from his first class; the tradition evolved out of a classroom discussion of a novel (Passing, by Nella Larsen) whose first chapter was loosely set at The Drake.

There are further tweaks that Arrupe mainstays would still love to implement, programmatic gaps they’re eager to fill. The school has the capacity to accommodate 400 students each year; enrollment, which sits near 300 currently, could grow. (Katsouros is wary of Arrupe feeling “too boutiquey.”) Professors, meanwhile, talk about better balancing their teaching and advising workloads, battling burnout and trauma fatigue. Maybe the student body could engage more in on-campus groups or clubs, in between their existing responsibilities. And maybe the staff could help foster what Ahumada calls a more “political space,” in which “students are more reflective on what might be some of the systemic issues that make a place like Arrupe necessary.”

If Katsouros had his way, Arrupe-like programs would sprout like weeds, far and wide. Dougherty Family College, housed within the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, opened two years ago, using Arrupe as its explicit inspiration. What’s stopping a wider expansion, on three or five or seven additional campuses around the country? Jesuits talk a lot about social justice, Katsouros points out, stretching his arms wide. “Well, here it is!”

In late June, staff and students held a surprise birthday celebration for Katsouros, who turned 60 in July. Wintrust was decked out with Hollywood-themed decorations, and a few dozen alumni made familial small talk while waiting for their fearless leader.

Down the stairs he sauntered, serenaded by Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” a sheepish grin spreading across his face. Meadows presented him with a highlighter-green cake. “I am blown away,” he said, “and so glad to be celebrating with you all.” His birthday wish? “That we have more and more get-togethers like this one, and that more and more Arrupes open.”

Blanca Rodriguez

Managing a blur of commitments, at Arrupe and beyond

A new school

Launched in 2015, Arrupe College is a two-year associate’s degree program that provides a rigorous liberal arts education to motivated students with limited financial resources and an interest in attending a four-year institution. In 2017, the first class graduated with an associate's degree. This spring, 47 percent of that first class earned their bachelor’s degree in four years—two years after they walked at Arrupe's inaugural commencement. An additional 37 percent is on track to graduate by the end of the year. Learn more about Arrupe from its dean and executive director and how to apply.