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Ivory towers falling?

Christian colleges aren’t in a good position to weather the coming demographic storm

Cabrini University in Radnor, Pa. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke

Ivory towers falling?
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Since Jan. 1, 2023, seven Protestant colleges and universities have closed their doors. Gone are Finlandia University (Lutheran, Michigan), Iowa Wesleyan University (Methodist, Iowa), Alliance University (Christian & Missionary Alliance, New York), Alderson Broaddus University (Baptist, West Virginia), Lincoln Christian University (Churches of Christ, Illinois); St. Augustine College (Episcopal, Illinois), and Multnomah University (independent Bible, Oregon). And though it technically lives on paper, King’s College in New York is no longer offering classes.

An equal number of Catholic colleges and universities have closed their doors since January 1, 2023. They include Presentation College (South Dakota), Cardinal Stritch University (Wisconsin), Cabrini University (Pennsylvania), Magdalen College (New Hampshire), Fontbonne University (Missouri); and Saint Rose College of Saint Rose (New York), and Notre Dame College (Ohio)—not the University of Notre Dame—to be clear.

These are tough times for American higher education, and small, liberal arts schools are among the most vulnerable to the storms we’ve encountered and those that lay ahead. The most obvious crisis was the pandemic, which forced classes online as campuses closed. Many large universities already had in place the physical assets to go online. Small, liberal arts colleges that prided themselves on the in-class interaction of professors and students weren’t built for that experience. Nor could they easily justify the premium tuition for personalized attention when that education was delivered over a Zoom call.

The truth, though, is that many of these colleges were already on life-support even before the pandemic. We have a higher education establishment built during and for the baby boom, and that’s no longer the America we live in. Our overall population may be steady thanks to immigration, but the number of children born to the middle- and upper-middle class families who can afford $30,000 a year for college is on the decline.

The daunting macrotrends are made worse by a microtrend coming quick. In 2026, “the number of students graduating from high schools across the country will begin a sudden and precipitous decline, due to a rolling demographic aftershock of the Great Recession. Traumatized by uncertainty and unemployment, people decided to stop having kids during that period.” So the general demographic decline will undergo a particularly pronounced phase starting soon.

Christian colleges don’t have the huge endowment resources that allow other private universities to weather these storms.

Meanwhile, college costs keep going up. In the past 20 years, higher education costs have grown at twice the rate of inflation. The explosion in university bureaucracy is doubtless partly to blame, along with the campus amenities arms race, healthcare costs, and technology needs. An unrestrained gusher of federal money from loan programs finances this growth, but at some point the government is going to run out of free money.

Christian higher education may take more of a punch to the gut than most of the overall industry. First, Christian colleges are much more likely to be small, liberal arts colleges than large research universities. Big public research universities get state dollars, revenues from past patents, athletics income, and grants for ongoing research on top of tuition. In other words, they have diversified revenue streams. Your average Christian college looks a lot more like Wheaton than the University of Michigan or Penn State.

Second, Christian colleges don’t have the huge endowment resources that allow other private universities to weather these storms. Eighty-two private universities have endowments in excess of $1 billion. Only two of those (Baylor and Pepperdine) are recognizably evangelical.

Third and finally, the cultural crunch will continue. The efforts by the left generally and LGBT activists in particular to disqualify and punish orthodox Christian education will not abate anytime soon. We will likely see more efforts like a law in Minnesota designed to eject two orthodox Christian colleges from a state aid program under the guise of “non-discrimination,” which really just means discrimination against orthodox Christians. If a future presidential administration or Congress applied that principle to federal student loans, we could lose half the Christian colleges in short order.

The gates of Hell will not prevail against the church, but that promise may not encompass every specific parachurch ministry. Ministries and colleges come and go, but many Christian colleges are treasures that serve the local and global church. They would be wise to prepare now for the tough times ahead.

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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