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Vincent D. RougeauJanuary 19, 2022
An abstract illustration of overlapping brown, yellow and orange profiles of human heads.(iStock)

This article is a response to “Will Catholic universities survive the upheaval in higher education? The next 10 years will tell,” a feature by Charles C. Camosy. Read more views on this issue linked at the bottom of this article.

As I reflect on the future of Catholic colleges and universities, I think Charles Camosy and I agree on his main thesis: “If Catholic higher education is to survive, we must spend the next decade being intentional and authentic when it comes to mission and identity.”

To secure a more promising tomorrow, institutional presidents should reclaim a commitment central to the founding of most Catholic colleges and universities in the United States: a special focus on the needs and the dignity of the marginalized.

The prevailing trends across higher education—demographic change, the need to control rising costs, the pressure to produce “job ready” graduates, and the desire for more local educational options—must not be seen as threats to Catholic higher education. Instead, many are opportunities that reflect our enduring missions. For example, we know the students who will attend our institutions a decade from now will be more diverse and in greater need of financial aid. Most Catholic institutions in this country were founded to educate immigrants, who tended to be poor and, as Catholics, were often unwelcome at most other colleges and universities. Then, as now, Catholic colleges provided a clear path to socioeconomic advancement, and a college degree remains the surest way to escape poverty.

Catholic colleges originally provided a clear path to socioeconomic advancement, and a college degree remains the surest way to escape poverty.

These institutions embraced the liberal arts as preparation for lives of inquiry and exploration. Philosophy, art and literature may seem like relics in today’s specialized, tech-focused world, yet data support the long-term economic benefit of studying the humanities. Training in the liberal arts prepares students for graduate school, and provides them with the flexibility to change careers and the ability to advance rapidly within their chosen fields.

It is also important to consider the different positions and perspectives of “elite” and “non-elite” institutions. Discussions about higher education typically focus on highly selective colleges, even though these institutions serve a relatively small number of students. The pandemic may accentuate the need for more moderately selective, localized and affordable higher education options to better serve a greater number of students and their families.

Catholic colleges and universities, deeply embedded within primarily urban communities, are uniquely positioned to meet these needs. Our institutions encompass all levels of selectivity. Many of us accept low-socioeconomic and Pell-eligible students at similar rates to secular institutions and provide substantially more financial aid. This does not represent ultimate success—we have much work to do—but these are areas where Catholic institutions can lead.

As we continue to create more diverse campus communities, there are a number of cultural trends and changes that need to be considered. Statistics show that Generation Z is composed of independent thinkers who are highly informed on such issues as climate change and sustainability, racial justice, immigration, poverty and income inequality. Most of these young people, particularly those from non-white backgrounds, welcome more honest and challenging discussions about race, history and social inequality, even when they do not agree with all the ideas being presented. Catholic colleges and universities need to engage in this dialogue, and they should do so from the perspective of the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic social teaching. This is particularly true if we are going to be attractive places to learn for young people in an increasingly diverse, multicultural society, and if we are going to be authentic representatives of a global church.

As Pope Francis has described in his book Let Us Dream, the lives and experiences of the marginalized have important lessons to teach our broader community about what is truly important. Catholic institutions must continue to support free and open academic inquiry, and a commitment to a fundamental equality grounded in our understanding of the worth of each person made in the image and likeness of God. And when we reclaim our founding commitment to the needs and dignity of the less fortunate, we can remain confident that Catholic institutions will continue to thrive.

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