On the cusp of celebrating its 100th anniversary, Immaculata University has no interest in repeating past mistakes. And the school’s president doesn’t need any fancy slogans or complicated committee-generated statements to articulate a plan for the next century. “We want to have the wherewithal to do whatever we need to do to accomplish our mission,” says Barbara Lettiere, Immaculata’s first-ever lay president and a graduate of the school.
That mission is to serve students and the community in the tradition of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It sounds simple enough in theory. In practice, however, the challenge of continuing to thrive in what Lettiere calls a “saturated” marketplace requires more than a strong tradition and commitment. It demands flexibility and creativity, agility and foresight, and strong partnerships and alliances. “A difficult marketplace requires different strategies,” she says.
Immaculata was chartered in November 1920 as Villa Maria College, the first Catholic college for women in the Philadelphia area. Since then, it has evolved into a co-ed institution that’s striving to stay viable in light of mounting costs, a shrinking student population, online competition and other challenges faced by countless institutions these days.
A former Bell Atlantic executive, Lettiere is the former CFO of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she steadied things financially to the point where the school was able to fund a new $30 million science facility. She took over at Immaculata in 2017, and she remains convinced that the school’s centennial celebration will set the tone for future success, especially given recent victories. “We’ve turned our enrollment around; we’ve built partnerships,” says Lettiere. “There’s a great deal of energy around the institution.”
There’s good reason for that. After “four or five years” of declining enrollment, Immaculata welcomed 2,800 undergraduate and graduate students this year. The school’s dorms are “90-92 percent full,” according to Lettiere, and its retention rate is 87 percent—well above the national average. Lettiere hopes the numbers grow. “I want us to be at an enrollment of about 3,100-3,200,” she says.
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Another cause for optimism is a collection of agreements with high schools and other universities to boost enrollment and the overall academic program. University graduates who’ve completed necessary pre-law requirements can earn their J.D. from Widener University Delaware Law School in just two years. There’s a relationship with DeSales University and ties with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Neumann University, Thomas Jefferson University and others. “We also have partnerships at the undergraduate level,” says Sister Carroll Isselmann IHM, a former Immaculata provost who now works in the advancement department writing grants. “The need for healthcare professionals has led us to partner with Thomas Jefferson, Philadelphia College of Nursing and Johns Hopkins. Students spend three years at Immaculata, then do their clinical training at the other schools. These collaborations are essential for us to move into the future.”
Success moving forward depends on enrollment stability. To that end, Immaculata has developed dual enrollment affiliations with 11 high schools, allowing students to earn college credits. It has also partnered with all 17 Philadelphia Archdiocesan schools—and others, as well—to provide guaranteed admission to any student with a 2.75 GPA and a 990 SAT score (although Immaculata doesn’t require standardized test results). Those who meet the criteria get a $9,000 scholarship, and if they graduate from a Catholic school, they receive an extra $2,000. Immaculata’s tuition this year is listed at $26,500.
Lettiere also reports that the school has made strides to improve its “curb appeal,” most notably with the opening of the IHM Student Center. “It has a lot to do with attracting students, but a key thing is that our faculty cares,” she says. “It’s not just about standing in front of them in a classroom.”
In the 1920-21 school year, students paid $150 to attend Villa Maria College. If you wanted to share a room and have meals on campus, the price rose to $460. It was an interesting time for women in the United States. Three months earlier, the 19th Amendment was passed, assuring a woman’s right to vote. Four-plus years later, Villa Maria’s first graduating class topped out at eight members, along with several IHM sisters who’d completed their work on nights and weekends. The school’s name was changed to Immaculata in 1929.
“The IHM sisters have a legacy of education,” says Immaculata alum Lydia Szyjka, the school’s director of communications. “They’ve also worked to educate women in South America, specifically Peru.”
As the suburbs expanded west, the school grew and developed a niche as a single-sex Catholic college. Its moment on the big stage came in 1972, when the “Mighty Macs” won the first-ever AIAW national basketball championship. The team would also capture the title over the next two seasons and reach the finals in 1975 and ’76.
The NCAA wouldn’t begin administering female athletics full time until 1983, and a tiny school from Chester County’s prevailing in a national competition was unprecedented. “Every year around the time of the Final Four, no matter where it’s being held, I have sports reporters calling and asking for photos of the Mighty Macs for a story they’re going to do,” Szyjka says.
The next headline-grabbing move came in the fall of 2005, when Immaculata started admitting men. And while the ratio remains skewed toward women (65:35), going coed was a sound move. “One thing I’ve learned about the IHM sisters is that they’re not afraid to make tough decisions,” Lettiere says.
Less difficult was the choice to celebrate a century of Immaculata education. The festivities kick off on Jan. 21, when students return to school for the second semester. Each month will feature an event commemorating a portion of its history, culminating Nov. 14 with a Mass and gala dinner to mark 100 years. And since no major milestone can pass without a fundraising campaign, the celebration coincides with an effort begun in May to generate $6.5 million for a new science building. “It all goes back to the vision the sisters had for the university,” Lettiere says. “They wanted it to be a thriving institution heading into its second century.”