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Dial 911 for struggling colleges

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Dial 911 for struggling colleges

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By Mark Azzara

Dear Friend,

I knew this was coming. It hurts to see that it is finally occurring. What makes it even worse is that this story is likely to be repeated often and probably for a long time.

St. Gregory’s University, a small Catholic school outside Shawnee, Oklahoma, closed in December. From the time I first heard of this college I took an interest because it seemed like such an odd fit – a Catholic university in the middle of the Protestant Bible Belt.

I am not surprised by this decision. When I was recruiting students for a tiny Catholic college on the East Coast I learned quickly that hard times were on the horizon for a lot of colleges such as St. Gregory’s. I would have included “my” college except that it chose to dive headlong into online degree programs that may be its salvation.

The number of high school graduates in the “pool” is decreasing because couples are producing fewer children, whether through abstinence, birth control or abortion. And the huge growth of online higher education, which doesn’t require much of a physical campus, may exacerbate the closure trend, especially among colleges that are late to, or not even entered in, the online game.

As the number of high school graduates declines the competition to recruit them increases. And some colleges – e.g., St. Gregory’s – just can’t stay in the race. They just don’t have the money, according to an online article.

Several years ago Trinity College, a nominally Catholic school in Burlington, Vermont., closed. Its buildings have become part of the University of Vermont. And Burlington College, a private non-sectarian school also in that Vermont town, also shuttered its doors not long ago.

I remember that, years ago, St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kansas, closed. So did Mater Dei College in Ogdensburg, New York. And Assumption College in Richardton, Noth Dakota.

But as the Burlington College experience demonstrates, this slow-motion train wreck is not restricted to Catholic colleges. Hundreds of private colleges, Christ-centered or not, have fewer than 2,500 students, according to that recent article on the Crux Website, and they are the ones most at risk.

A big concern of mine is what this trend says about Christian learning. The fewer Christian colleges there are, the fewer chances for young people to get a Christian higher education. Or to put it another way, fewer chances to incorporate faith into one’s worldview.

A hopeful sign in the St. Gregory’s tragedy is that Christian colleges have stepped up to help students. Oklahoma Baptist University, not far from St. Gregory’s, is offering to admit the displaced students. So is Franciscan University, a Catholic school in Steubenville, Ohio.

If that is a sign of the direction our faith is headed, then maybe I should thank God, despite the pain that this latest closure will cause for faculty and staff, who lost their jobs just a few weeks before Christmas.

And I speak from personal experience when I talk about this kind of pain. Hearing this latest news is like living a part of my life over again. Just two weeks before Christmas 2008, and a mere 20 minutes after the annual Christmas staff luncheon had ended, I was told my recruiting job had been eliminated.

This is one way to respond to the never-ending money crunch that colleges face. Most parents see the evidence in soaring tuition and fees. But as parents and students look at the return on their investment they increasingly conclude college isn’t worth it. Many students complain they’re so deep in debt they’ll never be able to buy a house.

If this trend accelerates then real trouble will be brewing for a lot of colleges. And since greater Spokane has a lot of colleges (at the moment) that means this trend could have a direct affect on you at some point.

Costs are up at some colleges because they’re spending big money on gleaming new facilities, cutting-edge degree majors and improved food services (e.g., a pizzeria at a Connecticut university that’s open until 1 a.m. and a North Carolina university’s campus-roaming ice-cream truck), all of which administrators hope will be irresistible to students.

Other colleges rely increasingly on adjunct (non-tenured) instructors who teach a lot, get paid very little and have no guarantee that they will even have jobs the following semester.

Even more important to me than the future of Christian colleges is the moral quagmire in which higher education finds itself. There is a moral (or perhaps immoral) dimension to staff abuse and over-pricing an education to pay for non-essentials like pizzerias.

For instance, adjunct faculty at community colleges across Ontario, Canada, got so fed up a few months ago that they went on strike, forcing a virtual shutdown of all their schools and resulting in the loss of an entire semester’s education for affected students.

For all the education that universities dole out, perhaps it’s time they took a step back and asked themselves whether their money-focused actions are teaching their students the wrong things about virtue and what’s really important in life.

Ideally, there is a special joy in teaching or otherwise serving young men and women to help their minds grow. And there is a special joy in attending a school you think will always be there. To think that there will be fewer opportunities like this is not a pleasant way to enter the new year.

All God’s blessings – Mark

Mark Azzara

About Mark Azzara

Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, "And So Are You." He is active in his church and a non-denominational prayer community and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master's degree from the University of Connecticut.

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