Challenge of Catholic Higher Education – Holtschneider

by | Nov 25, 2013 | Vincentian Family

Holtschneider-2013What Shall We Do:  The Eroding Social Compact Toward U.S. Higher Education

St. John’s University, NY

October 26, 2013

Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM

The U.S. Catholic community has played a strong and formative role in the higher learning of not only the Catholic community, but of successive waves of immigrants, underserved and religiously diverse populations in America.  We now stand witness as the national commitment to funding higher education is eroding and many of these traditional populations find themselves increasingly unable to access higher learning.  What new response is required of us? 

THe following excerpts come from the DePaul University website.

Good afternoon.  It’s a joy to be back at St. John’s.  Thank you for inviting me to speak about a topic I hold dear.

Digressions are generally reserved for the middle of lectures, but, if I may, permit me to spend a moment on Catholic health care before we consider Catholic higher education.  I promise, before long, an actual point will come riding over the hill to save the day.



Catholic health care grew from women religious who saw a need for community health care that simply wasn’t being provided for the needs of the growing urban communities of America, filled as they were with immigrant underserved families.   The provision of health care was to address a need of charity that had presented itself.  That has continued to be the raison d’etre of Catholic health care over the years, even as hospitals proliferated, as health care systems emerged, and as alternative delivery systems in local clinics, grocery stores and more have made health care ever more convenient.  The need that remained, of course, even as health care became more convenient for some, has been the significant percentage of our population who were not covered by health insurance.  Our hospitals have provided a critical safety net in providing health care to large numbers of uninsured in the nation.  They’ve done so at great financial cost, making our hospitals often highly precarious institutions, but noble ones.

And yet, Catholic health care now has a moment to step back and reconsider its work.  It can wonder whether its assemblage of acute care hospitals and health care systems are focused in a manner that best serves these underserved populations.  Perhaps our hospitals are unnecessary in some regions while needed more in others, or perhaps acute care hospitals are not the most effective delivery system for a population that might benefit more from earlier intervention and community-based care.  Perhaps Catholic health care might choose to make a stronger contribution to end-of-life care, addressing the bewildering irony that 80% of Americans would prefer to die at home with effective pain management, and yet 60% die in acute care hospitals often receiving every invasive treatment available, 20% in nursing homes, and only 20% at home.[2]   Perhaps Catholic health care might develop a more effective system of pastoral care for sickness and dying that cuts across all platforms, and one does not require the involvement of an increasingly overworked and stretched clergy.

I will leave further analysis of this possible mismatch of “unmet need vs. present structures” to our colleagues in Catholic health care, but my point is made.  It is now a fair question to ask whether or not Catholic health care should continue in the form which we’ve long known.  As the government assumes greater responsibility for the health care of its citizens, the Church now has the opportunity to redirect its charitable and pastoral activity toward those most in need.

It is, at the very least, a fascinating question.


For U.S. Catholic higher education, the strategic questions are similarly broad and potentially redefining, but the national situation presents an extraordinarily different set of challenges.

Catholic higher education, of course, also grew out of social need.  Women had poor access to higher learning, and it was women religious who provided it in powerful ways that still remain to be recognized by historians of women’s progress in America.  Immigrant groups looked to Catholic universities to provide excellent and faith-based education at an affordable price, as a primary method by which to insert their children into the economic and political mainstream.  (Such is the history of this fine institution.)   In many cases, our institutions welcomed students of color before their local regional institutions.  With great overlap, these institutions served large populations of first-generation students, finding ways to educate those whose families could not afford the more established and expensive institutions.

But here, too, government expanded its social outreach and began educating populations that the Catholic community had focused upon serving.   State institutions proliferated and offered subsidized education, very attractive to poorer populations.  Community colleges too provided a local and subsidized education for those who did not have the resources – or the academic preparation – to enter immediately into a baccalaureate program.  Pell grants and other support programs like TRIO programs received generous funds, often funding half the average cost of a public education and a third of the average cost of a private education.  And the government allowed these grant programs to travel to whatever institutions students could enter.   States set up low- rate loan programs, guaranteed them, and subsidized the interest during the college years.  Most states also created scholarships and other support programs that would serve economically challenged students attending in-state private institutions.

In recent decades, however, we have watched the progressive disassembling of this social compact that provided pathways to affordable higher education, particularly for those from families without means.





So, there’s the interesting difference between the questions facing Catholic health care and Catholic higher education.  In the face of increased government investment in covering the underserved, Catholic health care has the interesting question of whom it will now serve and what services it will provide for perhaps an even needier but smaller number of those who will not be served by government.   As higher education grows ever more important for social mobility and the government decreases the value of its assistance to do so, Catholic higher education encounters more need than ever with fewer resources to deploy to that need.  What should be done?

First, let’s admit something upfront.  One simply cannot speak of Catholic higher education as a system.  It is anything but.  This is an unconnected assemblage of 240 independent institutions, often in competition with one another, sponsored by religious congregations that have no history or intention of working together, much less combining their works.  Like health care, we are the largest single provider of private higher education in the country, but that is only because individual wildflowers have bloomed and flourished in multiple places.  It is certainly not the work of the bishops or any centralized body of religious congregations working in concert.

To survive and to provide the quality of education they wish to provide, quite a number of our Catholic institutions have assembled more privileged student bodies able to pay a higher tuition.  This makes sense as Catholics take their place among Jews and Mainline Protestants as among the wealthiest and best educated group in America.  But this too reduces the opportunities for the poor and lower middle classes and fails to meet the level of need within the fastest growing portion of American Catholicism, namely young Hispanics.[9]

Some Catholic institutions have resisted this shift toward higher paying customers, and made themselves somewhat financially vulnerable in the process.  They are generally of small and medium size.  Nearly all are struggling this fall with the Faustian circle of recruiting needy, mission-based populations, while simultaneously recruiting wealthier full-pay students and providing the quality and services that such students expect. They thereby require a net tuition that covers these costs.  Most of them heroically survive on the razor’s edge of quality and mission, and the likelihood of them balancing there for long is increasingly unlikely.

Places like St. John’s and DePaul, the two largest Catholic universities in America, have used size as a strategy, assembling a sufficient body of tuition-paying students to be able to support a large number of students who can only pay part of the tuition.  We too skate on the razor’s edge of quality and mission, and we too have to instantly adjust expenses as revenue shifts in any meaningful manner.  But our size gives us more cushion against institutional disaster, and that’s been a blessing.

The challenge with size, of course, is if all the students together feel the “double whammy” of reduced government assistance and reduced family savings since the economic downturn of 2008 (and they do!), then we have a larger gap to fill than most other institutions when it comes to backfilling that need with funded scholarships or unfunded discounts.   It’s a noble mission to serve the poor, but if St. Vincent de Paul’s 80-year-long life was any indication, it never becomes an easy one to fund.  If you serve the poor, you spend your life scrambling to fund the work.  That’s the nature of the commitment.

And the question is larger than how to keep our present institutions afloat.  There are so many more students from the lowest economic strata for whom to provide a meaningful four-year education.  There are so many more Catholics in other regions of the country to be served, where there are few if any Catholic universities nearby to serve them.

To be sure, there are some interesting attempts afloat in the Catholic community to address that need:

  • The College of St. Benedict just opened a campus in Arizona, the first Catholic university to open in that state.
  • Regis University in Denver has worked hard for many years to provide a Catholic education online for western communities where it just wasn’t practical to build campuses.
  • Colleges in geographic regions where the population has declined are quietly in talks about mergers, such as the recent announcement by St. Bonaventure University and Hilbert College in Western NY.
  • We’ve always had two-year colleges among our Catholic institutions, and two-year degrees within some of our others, but the Jesuits are experimenting with a 48-credit college diploma – not a baccalaureate degree – that they are offering in Africa as a way to provide sufficient higher education at an affordable price to propel people into the careers that are available to them.  Perhaps not everyone needs 120 credits.  Or perhaps additional education can be delivered later on in their careers, as they need it.
  • Many, many of us are turning the focus of our fundraising aggressively toward assembling pools of scholarship money to make up for the loss of government assistance that once helped our students.

What has always been noble about Catholic education is that we have made the decision to maintain quality in what we provide underserved populations.  It’s a terrible business model to create a high-end product for a population that cannot afford a high-end product, but that’s the reason we do it:  namely, to provide a truly life-transforming education for those whose families cannot provide their children with a life-transforming education.

Catholic higher education is about more than charity, of course.  We are in service of the intellectual life itself, and do that through assembling and supporting important departments in many of the fields of study humanity has found of great value.  We also assist the Church’s larger work.  We have:

  • Provided a home for theologians and philosophers, when the rest of American higher education by and large reduced those studies and departments.
  • Created opportunities throughout many disciplines for important conversations of values, conviction and social purpose.
  • Trained ethics professionals for health systems.
  • Trained and certified Directors of Religious Education for parish service.
  • Trained teachers and administrators for Catholic schools and social workers for Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services.
  • Educated Catholic students within a Catholic milieu, providing this subset of our larger student body with an “opportunity-for-the-taking” to learn their faith at a more satisfying intellectual level and to encounter actual faith as it is lived within that university community, whether at Sunday mass, retreats, or extensive campus ministry programming, or just in conversation with our full-time resident campus ministers.
  • To the degree that Catholic students took advantage of what we’ve offered them, they have the very blessing of having resources at hand as they passed through the normal adolescent rejection of a childhood faith into something that will support their adult faith life.  (The operant phrase here, of course, is “to the degree that they took advantage.”)

Most of our institutions, however, were founded to advance the Church’s social purpose as well as its intellectual and religious purposes.  In challenging times, this too is part of the “mission” that is ours to protect and hopefully even advance.   And so, we have a great deal of work ahead of us.  We could:

  • Focus our fundraising ever further to keep our social mission true and effective, seeking to offset ourselves what the poor are losing from government.
  • Lobby collectively to keep, rebuild government-funded financial assistance.
  • Shift our attention to additional populations and regions with great need.
  • Focus more attention on educating the new generations of immigrant Catholics.
  • Create a lower-cost product at the higher education level, as Cristo Rey and San Miguel schools have at the secondary level.
  • Stop chasing cost-raising prestige in the form of unchecked lessening of teaching load or proliferation of unnecessary doctoral programs, or other ways in which institutions seek to chase the metrics that fuel magazine rankings.
  • Ask the religious congregations, as they divest of their patrimonial lands and buildings, to dedicate those resources to this purpose.
  • Where our institutions are not likely to succeed, we could sell those lands and buildings and deploy the funds as a foundation for these purposes.
  • We could figure out how to better deploy the new electronic tools.
  • We could work hard to strengthen a larger social consensus to address poverty at a moment in a young person’s life when they can most easily change their circumstances – their education.
  • Perhaps you have even better ideas.

I was walking across the St. John’s campus recently and felt a great deal of pride as I saw the student body you have assembled.  This institution is a blessing for the diverse families of Queens, of New York City, and beyond.  The social mission of the Church is alive and well here.  This is noble work, but even noble work can find itself challenged by prevailing shifts in the social consensus.  The greatest challenge of challenging times is to think beyond saving our own present activity, but to look at the need around us and see what role we might play.  Charity is always an opportunity waiting to be addressed, and human need is always a cry waiting to be heard.

In the end, every age has its own strategic challenges and opportunities.  A charitable heart does what it can as well as it can, and it gives thanks to the God who brings us into his own love and care for his people – as I give thanks today for your own warm welcome back to this very special place.  May God always bless St. John’s University and Catholic higher education more broadly.  May God continue to bless you in whatever work and place you find yourself, and through you, a waiting world.

Thank you.



[2]Bailey, A, & Periyakoil , VJ. (2013)   End of Life Curriculum Project, a joint project of the US Veterans Administration and SUMMIT, Stanford University Medical School (

[3] Heller, Donald.  (2013) “Does Federal Financial Aid Drive Up Prices?” American Council on Education, 16.

[5] Delisle, Jason.  “Putting a Number on Federal Education Spending,” NYTimes, February 27, 2013.

[7] Baum, S., Ma, J., and Payea, K.  (2013). Education Pays: The Benefits of Higher Education for Society and Individuals.  The College Board, p. 33-37.


[9]“U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” (February 2008).  Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.:, Summary of Key Findings.


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