Will Catholic universities survive the upheaval in higher education? The next 10 years will tell.

Editor’s note: This article is part of The Conversation, an initiative of America Media offering diverse perspectives on important and contested issues in the life of the church. Read more views on this issue linked at the bottom of this article.

This past fall, I had the opportunity to debate the philosopher Peter Singer about the moral status of the prenatal child. The debate took place at Princeton University in front of hundreds of undergraduates who are enrolled in his massive course on practical ethics. It offered me an opportunity to make the case for prenatal justice.

But this yearly meeting is also a chance for me to take an enjoyable stroll across a beautiful autumn campus. Depending on the route, I can catch a glimpse of the prominent university chapel, still standing soundly amid the crashing waves of a sea of secularity. The building is a reminder of Princeton’s historical connection to Christianity—indeed, of its founding as a seminary and close connection to the Presbyterian Church for the better part of two centuries. It is also a reminder that, although admirable work in theology and the study of religion still goes on in some corners at Princeton, the institution’s fundamental character has changed.

Woodrow Wilson, perhaps best known in our current moment for his deep-seated racism (including a policy of keeping Black students from attending Princeton), was responsible for ending the influence of the Presbyterians on the school’s board of trustees. In part because of a commitment to so-called “pure” research, but also to make the faculty members eligible for retirement pensions from the Carnegie Foundation for the advancement of teaching, Princeton’s board would go on to officially declare the school nonsectarian under Wilson’s leadership.

The college experience could look very different only 10 years from now. But what that means will depend on decisions being made right now in response to social and cultural trends.

The winds of dramatic change have continued to blow through our institutions of higher education, and in the first two decades of the 21st century it seems they have picked up speed; institutions are re-examining everything from the role of faith to the value of debates like the ones in which Professor Singer and I are engaged. Administrators, faculty and students are asking hard questions about the past and the future of our institutions, about mission, curricula and diversity. Catholic colleges and universities are not immune to these trends, and the college experience could look very different only 10 years from now. But what that means will depend on decisions being made right now in response to several anticipated social and cultural trends.

The Trends

The number of college-age students will drop dramatically, and those who choose to attend college will seek out low-cost degree options closer to home. This is the trend most predictors are focused on at the moment, and it has been the subject of many articles and books—including an important text by Nathan Grawe: Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. Because of a combination of demographic trends that have been present for decades but accelerated dramatically during the Great Recession of 2008, there will simply be fewer college-age students in the United States over the next decade. The problem is likely to be especially acute in the Northeast and the Midwest.

President Biden’s recent attempt to pass tuition-free community college provided by the federal government has failed—but the cultural trend is in the direction of this kind of public support. Especially in light of massive student debt and uneven distribution of the goods of higher education across social classes, more and more students will be looking for dramatically cheaper higher education alternatives over the next decade.

After the pandemic, desperately (and even mortally) lonely and disconnected students will be looking for more and better interactions—a culture of encounter, if you will. But especially given the cost of the current dominant model, fewer will be looking for the experience of traveling across the country to live in what is essentially a country club. Particularly for students among Hispanic and other still-growing U.S. populations, the trend is likely to be toward more localized college experiences that permit and even encourage ongoing social ties with the student’s family and community. Through virtual courses and other offerings during the pandemic, administrators, professors and students have become significantly more accepting of such learning modes, which offer greater flexibility regarding location.

The Covid-19 pandemic also has seen a demand from families for more control over what kinds of courses and programs are offered.

The Covid-19 pandemic also has seen a demand from families for more control over what kinds of courses and programs are offered. This trend is already well advanced when it comes to primary and secondary education—and it is coming for higher education as well. Virtual school during the pandemic has spurred greater activism from many parents concerned about these issues, especially given the size of bills that these parents are paying.

Institutions’ Christian connections will increasingly be questioned, and the classical liberal arts education will suffer. Ideological shifts taking place in higher education are also extremely important. Many colleges and universities continue to be affiliated formally with Christian churches, but there is powerful ongoing pressure on academic institutions to conform to a status quo that is ostensibly neutral (more often skeptical—or even hostile) when it comes to Christianity. In everything from faculty hires to debates about which topics or authors to include in the curriculum to what goes into the student handbook, assumptions like those that informed the secularizing approach of President Wilson at Princeton more than a century ago have now become the norm across the country.

As I wrote for an article in Church Life Journal in 2018 describing in detail the crisis of Catholic moral theology, criteria for what counts as good scholarship, teaching and service have gradually ceased to have reference to Jesus or Christianity—even at schools formally affiliated with Christian churches.

As institutions’ connections to Christianity become frayed, other ideologies have gained ground. Too often, Christian values are made to fit into those ideologies—not the other way around. Intersectional critical theory—sometimes referred to pejoratively as “wokeism” or the “successor ideology”—is very often at the center of this ideological shift.

Although the definition of this ideology is disputed (it is probably better described as many related things rather than as one consistent thing), one element most adherents agree on is that it embraces skepticism about classical liberal arts education grounded in traditional norms of academic debate. These norms are dismissed in various ways, but often with reference to their supposed connections to whiteness, patriarchy, homophobia/transphobia and more.

Intersectional theorists have much to contribute, particularly when it comes to structural sin and a consistent ethic of life.

Intersectional theorists have much to contribute, particularly when it comes to structural sin and a consistent ethic of life. I have personally learned much about how to think about my whiteness as it exists with my own multiracial family through their writings. But I have found that too often intersectional discourse focuses on tearing down perceived heretics and other opponents rather than working to find common cause with others who also want to lift up those discarded by our throwaway culture.

Open and honest academic dialogue will suffer. Those who wield power in the administration of higher education in the United States feel social and other kinds of pressure to enforce strictly the norms of intersectional critical theory—often by means of offices and initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion. These efforts are often responses to real suffering and prejudice, but too often they are executed in censorious ways that chill free and open academic inquiry about the contested issues of the day. This is true both for students (who can put grades and letters of recommendation at risk if they express an opinion out of step with this ideology), and even for tenured faculty, who fear being passed over for promotion, isolation and difficulties getting papers through peer review (and fewer and fewer professors will have the protections that come with tenure over the next 10 years).

There is a publicly shared sense that one must conform to the new ideology or face serious consequences—with the result that many students and professors simply keep their heads down. I am certainly not arguing that this trend makes professors the primary victims of our day, but rather that it discourages the innovation, disagreement, argument, collaboration and transformation required to make progress. Authentic engagement across groups holding differing opinions on foundational topics is now rarely even attempted on these topics—much less achieved.

But we can also expect students and professors alike will push back against the fear tactics used to enforce the norms coming from this ideology. According to a Morning Consult Poll in July 2021, the millennial generation is the only one to support such a culture. But would you guess that the youngest generation, Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2008), is the generation most likely to reject it? And the youngest members of that generation—those who will go to college over the next decade—showed the lowest levels of support.

There is a publicly shared sense that one must conform to the new ideology or face serious consequences.

The Effects

How can we expect students, families and colleges and universities to respond in light of these trends?

Colleges and universities will compete by lowering tuition and cutting costs. Many schools, especially those serving more localized communities in the Northeast and Midwest, will face extreme cost pressures over the next decade as they compete fiercely for the limited numbers of students available. Peer institutions already have begun to compete with each other by radically lowering what they charge students—a move that has created an intense and (for many) catastrophic race to the bottom.

Given the increased pressure on higher education to become more localized and affordable over the next decade, there will be an opportunity for non-elite colleges and universities to make cost-saving cuts aimed at putting more focus on educating rather than administration. Bloated administration remains a primary driver of higher costs. To give just one example: The average university in the United States has more diversity, equity and inclusion administrators than it has tenure-track history professors. Unfortunately, responses to cost pressures are also likely to be focused on faculty, with the hiring of even more non-tenured adjuncts with ever-increasing teaching loads.

Education will become corporatized. As with demographic shifts, these kinds of cost pressures have been borne by many schools for some time. And though they would have grown even more serious over the next decade in any case, the game-changer will be brand-new competition from corporations like Google, Microsoft and Amazon. These corporations’ well-funded general plan (I sometimes call it “from pre-K to cubicle”) is to influence all stages of education and imbue it with the telos of job training. The next decade will see these corporations dramatically reduce the costs of post-secondary education—enticing students with things like “Google Career Certificates” and “Amazon Career Choice” programs that are local (and/or virtual) and tied directly to career paths.

Parents will seek alternatives to so-called “woke” universities. Furthermore, students and parents who have had enough of the dominant ideology in higher education—and the perceived cancel culture used to enforce it—will become less likely to support schools that remain beholden to this ideology. These institutions will therefore face even more challenges, especially in the parts of the country most opposed.

There will be an opportunity for non-elite colleges and universities to make cost-saving cuts aimed at putting more focus on educating rather than administration.

For decades the accepted narrative has been that when young people go to college they become more liberal. However, the current ideology is creating a new type of divide, one that can split young people and their families about more fundamental matters. This trend influences the very norms and expectations around how political differences should affect one’s relationship with those who hold differing views. Parents will become significantly less willing to send their children to an institution if they think there is a realistic chance that they could lose their relationship with their child in the process. These tradeoffs, especially when combined with lower perceived prestige for higher education, will dramatically change the calculus of many parents over the next 10 years.

Some institutions will not last. Simply put, many at-risk colleges and universities will not be able to compete in this market. In what will be a dramatic and clear sign of the times, colleges and universities will shut their doors, and their former campuses will be repurposed by tech companies to support their new programs. The more traditional institutions that survive are likely to look quite different from the way they did 20 years ago. Except at wealthy, elite institutions, the humanities will decline dramatically; faculty members and even entire departments may disappear, especially as pressure brought to bear by corporate credentialing programs influences curriculum and the types of majors offered.

Institutions that find ways to serve U.S. Hispanic populations—especially in ways that allow local relationships with family and community to flourish—could be the exceptions that prove the rule. Non-elite institutions of higher education, if they are to survive, will focus on serving the needs of their particular local communities—with the result that these institutions will look quite different from one another. In 10 years, higher education across the United States will be much more diverse in terms of approaches, ideology and perspectives than it is now.

The Opportunity

Within the context I have described, many smaller Catholic colleges and universities may find themselves at particular risk, and might understandably view this outlook as frightening. In one sense it is. Here is a sobering headline that appeared in 2019 in Inside Higher Ed: “A Jesuit University Without History or Philosophy?” The result of pressures like declining enrollment and rising costs on Wheeling Jesuit University led to the gutting of their liberal arts programs (including theology) and a focus on their profitable areas of study, like business and nursing. The result of this choice? The school survived, but the Jesuits rightly decided that it could no longer claim to be a Jesuit school. The school’s website name was changed from wju.edu to wheeling.edu.

Simply put, many at-risk colleges and universities will not be able to compete in this market.

It is terrifying to think that Catholic higher education could get broadly trapped into short-term, survivalist thinking, especially for those of us who have dedicated our lives to these institutions. But I also believe that most Catholic institutions will not need to adopt this approach. While some extremely vulnerable institutions—those whose finances might cause them to close in a year or two, for instance—may see no path besides the one Wheeling took, most can refuse to bend to the current trends in favor of thinking about their longer-term mission. Properly understood, the cultural and social trends (and likely results) described in detail above point to an immense opportunity for Catholic higher education.

For decades, many Catholic institutions of higher education have been slouching gradually toward the least common denominator in U.S. higher education and in the process following Princeton’s path toward losing their identity as religious institutions. But if Catholic higher education is going to compete in the medium and longer term, the marketplace over the next 10 years will push us to embrace what makes us distinctive. For what makes us distinctive will be in demand.

Millions of students and families have rejected and will continue to reject the move toward higher education as a kind of credentialing for working in the technocracy. They will instead insist on a higher education that helps young people engage and wrestle with great ideas—toward the goal of helping form them into virtuous and flourishing young adults. This is something that Catholic institutions of higher education have been doing for literally centuries. In the United States, many of our current Catholic institutions came into being to put the fruits of higher education at the service of marginalized Catholic minorities. Might we be able to come up with analogues to the current situation of Catholics in the United States?

The likely backlash against intersectional critical theory (the seeds of which, again, are already sprouting—including among young people) could also provide a valuable opportunity for Catholic higher education. Discussions within a Catholic context about matters related to race, sex and gender would bring the resources of Scripture and Catholic tradition to the fore. But instead of fostering a cancel culture in search of heretics, Catholic colleges and universities that channel the church’s rich tradition would have a spirit of free academic inquiry in which opposing views are sought out, welcomed and given a fair and rigorous hearing.

Commitment to free and open academic inquiry, of course, does not mean that Catholic institutions are somehow value-neutral.

I am thinking in particular of the example of St. Thomas Aquinas and other major figures of the era of scholastic philosophy who thought engaging opposing views charitably was so important that they conducted their inquiries into various topics by first engaging the views with which they disagreed. And then, rather than finding ways to ignore their opponent or create a strawman, they finished their argument by making sure each of the objections to their point of view had been specifically and generously answered.

I am also thinking of St. Robert Bellarmine’s response to the Galileo affair, in which he insisted that the church’s interpretation of Scripture would have to change if science could prove that such an interpretation was obviously mistaken. The Catholic intellectual tradition—not at all afraid of open and free inquiry—put its own teachings to the test in light of that inquiry. Seeking truth in this sense is one important way to go closer to God, the source of such truth. Catholic institutions should therefore not only hire faculty who disagree with church teaching but should protect such professors with tenure so that they can be free to push us in the search for truth.

Such a commitment to free and open academic inquiry, of course, does not mean that Catholic institutions are somehow value-neutral. On the contrary, this particular commitment comes out of our more general theological and ecclesial commitments. They will, of course, also have implications for school policies: everything from the right to unionize, the availability of contraception, paid family leave, funding of abortion, ecological concern, in vitro fertilization and the freezing of eggs, just wages and benefits and so much more.

But our Catholic commitments will need to go to an even more foundational place as well: a robustly theological articulation of the dignity and flourishing of the human person. As I argued in my most recent book, Losing Our Dignity, our secularized culture (driven in large measure by a medical culture produced by higher education) has undermined the foundation for fundamental human equality. Without an appeal to fellow human beings sharing a common nature, one that reflects the image and likeness of God, there is no basis for the kind of equality our culture and laws assume as a foundational baseline. There is only the equality of human beings who happen to have certain actualized traits: autonomy, rationality, will, productivity, self-awareness and the like. Catholic institutions of higher education are needed to aggressively fight for the theological grounding of fundamental human equality, so that those who do not possess some or all of those traits are not stripped of their rights and dignity.

That vision of the dignity of the human person must also resist ableist and consumerist views of the person, which define us primarily by our capacity to produce capital. This plays out in multiple cultural spheres, but it is certainly present in the assumptions of the plans Google, Microsoft and Amazon have for higher education. There is no room in their model for inquiry about visions of the good and ultimate concerns—and still less about forming people in light of those goods and concerns. There is room only for supporting a vision of the human being as Homo economicus.

In a hyperpolarized time, a distinctively Catholic institution of higher education, while standing clearly for a particular vision of the good, will seek to become a place of authentic dialogue.

One of the ways Catholic institutions of higher education must resist this distorted vision of the person is by giving our students genuine options to engage goods that do not fit into the dominant U.S. American marketplace: friendship, spirituality, liturgy, embodied community, enchantment, mentorship, daydreaming and more. We do not need country club-style campuses to offer these goods to our students—and, in many ways, that kind of culture increases the likelihood they will not be able to engage them. Offering a genuine culture of encounter (especially with a focus on Jesus’ command to see his face in the marginalized) not only fulfills a duty of all Catholic institutions to obey the commands of Christ. It offers anxious, depressed, lonely and disconnected students a much better chance at having something they will otherwise likely be denied by the broader culture: a meaningful life.

What, precisely, am I envisioning here? It is difficult to say—because it will require the revamping of most current Catholic institutions and, indeed, the creation of new ones. (The cultural move to create new institutions of higher learning is already underway. The secular University of Austin was just founded with the goal of fostering viewpoint diversity and genuine academic freedom.) These new Catholic institutions, again, will look different in terms of how they serve their local populations. But a general approach avoids the extremes of raw capitulation to secularized norms on the one hand and refusal to have serious engagement with different points of view on the other. In a hyperpolarized time, a distinctively Catholic institution of higher education, while standing clearly for a particular vision of the good, will seek to become a place of authentic dialogue—again, not in spite of our vision but because of it.

This would be—of its very nature and quite intentionally—a countercultural move. Given that the culture to be resisted is so prominent and powerful in many of our Catholic institutions, it would certainly take courage to move them in the direction I have outlined here. And it would demand a different kind of courage to build new institutions. I know firsthand the frustration so many in Catholic higher education are feeling right now—and the palpable sense that we need to do something dramatically different.

But here is the bottom line: If Catholic higher education is to survive, we must spend the next decade being intentional and authentic when it comes to our mission and identity. This will not be achieved by vague appeals to social justice—nor by censorious ideological enforcement of church teaching in the classroom. It will be achieved by engaging the fullness of the Catholic intellectual tradition and practice of the church’s social teaching, passing them both on to our students as cherished gifts, and making it clear we are doing this because we love them and seek their good.

If we fail to move in this direction, then the writing is on the wall. And many will one day walk our former campuses (owned by Google or Microsoft), notice the beautiful Catholic church, and be reminded of what was lost.

More views on the crisis in higher education: