Acton Institute Powerblog

Thoughts on Higher Education, Christian and Otherwise

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I’ve posted a reflection on the future of higher education, with a particular emphasis on the Christian universities, over at the Touchstone Magazine Mere Comments blog. Catch it here.

Here’s a clip:

The economic downturn has had a substantial impact on colleges and universities.

The first shoe dropped when endowments everywhere took big hits from a rapidly falling market. When endowments go underwater, they produce no income and generally can’t be touched.

The other shoe will drop when we see how private colleges and universities do in terms of their student numbers for the fall. My casual conversations with peers indicates that the private schools are running behind in terms of student deposits. The buyers are not feeling flush.

The public universities, on the other hand, have their own problems. The ones that have endowments are down. They also rely on tax subsidies in a time when tax revenues are diminished. The trend of the last several years has been for states to offer less and less financial support. In-state tuition has risen substantially. Where they do not suffer is in terms of student numbers. They will be overwhelmed by bargain seekers in tough economic times. The question is whether they will have state funds to backfill the subsidized education they offer and how many they can admit. As it stands now, their facilities are often severely strained, teaching assistants do an awful lot of the instruction, and there are a large number of cattle call style courses.

Hunter Baker Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in Religion & Politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.


  • Greg

    As a teacher and guidance counselor at a Catholic high school, I concur with your assessment that students are looking for the better educational bargain. I’ve started drilling the danger of student loan debt into the freshman as well (as it currently stands at nearly $19,000 for undergraduates).

    What you don’t mention is the destruction being done to private school systems at the elementary and high school level. In 2007, 212 Catholic schools closed. My previous high school closed in 2008, and rumors are circulating in my archdiocese that up to 20 elementary Catholic schools may close this year.

    The exodus of students from the second largest educational system in the country poses deep and abiding problems for public schools (many of which offer substantially less in the way of “quality education). Both publics and privates have much to gain by helping the private systems, and much to lose from their collapse or reduction. The question is whether appropriate action will be taken…

  • Hunter Baker

    Greg, I’m with you. I think the reduction in the Catholic school system is a terrible thing. My mother’s dad was a letter carrier for the postal service but was able to put five children all the way through Catholic school. I’m sure that was in no small part because the church helped. All of us (Catholics and Protestants) need to be putting more into primary and secondary education.

  • Ken

    As a member of a diocesan school board I’ve watched the enrollment problem from a California perspective. We are mostly concerned with closures in “urban areas” and retaining teachers with equitable pay. Typically Catholic schools pay teachers less than public systems. But while the issue centers more on “justice” in wages paid, I haven’t seen underpaid Catholic School Teachers running for the door.

    Hunter’s family was able to send his relatives to Catholic Parish School because Brothers and Nuns, vowed to charity and members of vibrant and growing orders, had a renewing supply of religious to take care of them. Vocations are not as vibrant today but their are orthodox and solid orders that are growing. One in Michigan sends teachers to Arizona and California and is raising funds for additional living space at the mother house.

    I’m supportive of Charles Murray’s writings on higher education: that not everyone is suited for benefitted by a “college degree” — but he does stipulate some things. One is his definition of what a college is supposed to be. It is not a trade school. It is not an arts training academy. And his premise requires that the high school education prepare the young person for citizenship with sufficient and relevant courses in civics. has found that presently we have a population of college grads who actually know less in this area than those entering as freshmen. Since that group double qualifies as high school graduates, the situation begs for the question: If Jefferson saw merit in an educated public as the means to securing the nation’s future freedom, and if the graduates of K-12 public schools cannot pass a multiple guess civics test after a cumulative expense of [12 x $5500] $66,000.00 — $270,000 in D.C. public schools; what in the world is being accomplished at colleges considering the staggering expense?

    Even Catholic niche schools that used to focus on training for boys have dropped that curriculum for a college prep. Parochialism is not without its errors.

    While some schools are having to tough it out with decreased enrollments and parents are feeling guilty about holding junior back for lack of tuition money I’m more of an advocate for allowing and encouraging parents to be more sober with what it is they are financing. At both the K-12 and college level, it appears to not be worth the expense. As Hunter writes in his paragraph above, parents need to be “putting more into primary and secondary education.” And what it is they need to be putting in is themselves and the vanishing tradition and legacy of their lives and experiences.

    That’s worth a whole lot more than a semester’s series of lectures in Perspectives in Modern Women’s Literature M-W at 10:30.

  • Robert Glass

    Unfortunately, many families will allow the economics of college costs rule over the value of the specific education. Public education may be the answer for many families, but many should consider the alternatives of a Christian higher ed experience.

    Steve Henderson studied the data from a 1994 study by university professor Gary Railsback and found that 52 percent of incoming freshmen who identify themselves as born-again Christians when they enter a public university will either no longer identify themselves as born-again four years later or will not have attended any religious service in over a year. Students also reject their faith at secular private colleges and more so at Catholic colleges; newer data show the rejection rate at 70 percent.

    Sobering data.

  • Greg

    Robert, do you have a link to that data? I’m frankly skeptical of an alleged 70% rejection rate. Makes me wonder how they’re defining “rejection”, and whether conversion to another faith/denomination is also being measured.