The coming apocalypse of Catholic higher education

By Jason King, Professor of Theology, Director of the Core Curriculum

There is an apocalypse coming in higher education, one that bodes ill for many Catholic colleges and universities. It is coming on the backs of four horsemen.


A 15th-century woodcut print features the four riders of the apocalypse from Revelations. (Source: Albrecht Dürer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The First Horseman: Finances

In 2018, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded its financial outlook on higher education from stable to negative. In 2020, Moody’s indicated that the outlook worsened because of the pandemic, anticipating a 5 to 10 percent drop in revenue beginning in 2021. This is why there are predictions of a 50 percent reduction in U.S. colleges and universities within 10 years.

While Notre Dame has an $11 billion endowment and Boston College has a $2.5 billion endowment, most Catholic colleges and universities are struggling. Their median endowment is $33.6 million, about half of the $65 million for all U.S. colleges and universities. From 2016 to 2019, 39 colleges closed, and 20 percent were Catholic.

This negative financial outlook is the first horseman of the apocalypse. It brings the truth that financial pressures are real, especially for Catholic schools.

The Second Horseman: Demographics

In “Demographics and Demand for Higher Education,” Nathan Grawe predicts significant closures in many private, regional, liberal arts colleges with low endowments, a category that seems to describe the vast majority of Catholic colleges. His argument is based on a precipitous decline in the number of potential college students. When the 2008-2009 financial crisis hit, the number of people having children dropped. The earliest of this age-group will turn 18 in 2026, and colleges and universities will enter a long stretch of decline that begins with a 5 percent reduction of potential students and ends with a 15 percent reduction.

There was some hope that there would be a return to normal around 2030 when birth rates rose after the financial crisis eased. However, because of the pandemic, we can anticipate a 10 percent reduction in births in 2020, which means colleges will hit another demographic drop starting in 2038.

The Third Horseman: Value of Higher Education

The value of higher education is increasingly questioned. Some schools have tried to increase their value with amenities like good dorms, food, athletics and even lazy rivers. However, the key value to emerge is the ability to get a job after graduation. Measured by this value, higher education is a winner. Over time, students’ return on investment for college is 14 percent, beating average market returns for the last 50 years.

However, viewing higher education only through the lens of job acquisition is a reduction of what colleges do, especially Catholic ones. Schools feel like they must reduce their core curriculum, excising majors not directly linked to professions, and advancing vocational programs. Instead of producing the education of the free person—which is the meaning of the liberal arts—it produces mindless drone workers.

The Fourth Horseman: Catholic Identity

Since The Boston Globe stories broke in 2002, Catholics in the United States have become painfully cognizant of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and cover-ups by bishops. The 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the 2020 Vatican Report on Theodore McCarrick remind Catholics of these ongoing problems and failures. The overall result is a suspicion of Catholicism, a sense that things were and are being covered up. This difficult truth, that Catholic identity is a compromised category in the public sphere, is what the fourth horseman brings.

How do we respond to these four horsemen of the apocalypse?

A biblical understanding of the apocalypse is not primarily about destruction but about critiquing the social order to bring forth, as my colleague Dr. McMahon wrote, “a love that continually struggles to become socially and historically real.”

The way forward is to embrace an authentic Catholic identity, one that animates the internal operations of a school. It needs to be ordered to God (holy) by ensuring that educational work is fostering love (apostolic), pursuing truth (one), and serving people, especially the least (catholic). It is a Catholic identity that is not first concerned with its public perception but about people teaching and learning.

It will mean Catholic colleges and universities focus on finding work for students but also helping them find a life that is more than work. It is a life that cares for family, friends, the common good, the economy, politics, creation and a meaningful life.

It will mean Catholic colleges and universities simultaneously care for the students that are enrolled and reach out to students who are often left out of college. There should be more focus on mentoring students, effective teaching, attention to students’ needs like hunger and shelter, addressing a culture that hinders rather than supports what is good and true and ensuring the protection of each person’s dignity.

I am not naïve enough to think that such a renewal will mean the salvation of Catholic colleges and universities. There is a wave of closures coming in higher education that will include Catholic schools. This reality means that Catholic colleges and universities have a choice to make.

They can respond to the horsemen by distorting themselves, jettisoning their Catholic identity, focusing just on job acquisition, recruiting students but not supporting them, and narrowly focusing on finances. This may or may not keep them open, but, either way, they will have sacrificed their souls, their employees, and their students for a few pieces of silver.

Or Catholic colleges can choose to be authentically Catholic, to help students find work and a life beyond work, to care for students enrolled at their schools, especially the poor and marginalized, and to make sure money is at the service of truth, love, and people. This may or

may not keep them open, but, either way, they will find, as we all hope to find, God saying to them at the end, “well done good and faithful servant … come share the master’s joy” (Matthew 25:21).

Opinions expressed by outside contributors do not necessarily represent the views of The Review or any of its employees.

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