Classical religious colleges show resilience, growth in a field of dropping enrollments

While national college enrollment has decreased by 13 percent over the last decade, a new breed of “classical” religious colleges have defied the crises of Covid, economic recession, and a smaller national pool of applicants with significant increases in enrollment, writes Jeremy Tate in First Things magazine (January 3). These colleges, some of which were started or repurposed in the 2000s, have embraced a curriculum that stresses the Western classical tradition and Christian faith, and have found appeal among the younger generation. Thomas Aquinas College was started in California a half-century ago based on a novel curriculum that discarded textbooks and lectures in favor of student-led discussions of classical works. Recently, Thomas Aquinas celebrated its first graduating class at a brand new campus in Massachusetts, which has helped double the school’s capacity without jeopardizing its low student-to-teacher ratio. Benedictine College in Kansas likewise offers a “Great Books” program, reflecting the administration’s attempt to return to the basics, and its enrollment doubled between 2004 and 2022. Graduation rates at the college have jumped by 28 percent.

Source: University of Dallas.

Michigan’s conservative standard-bearer Hillsdale College skirted a statewide decline in undergraduate enrollment—among the worst in the nation—with applications growing by 53 percent, making the classical school more flexible and selective in admissions. The University of Dallas has welcomed the second-largest incoming class in its 66-year history, while Florida’s conservative Catholic Ave Maria University reported enrollment that was up by half. Tate adds that “Full enrollment combined with donations from enthusiastic alumni and donors have allowed classically minded institutions to keep tuition at modest levels—at least, compared to their conventional peers. Affordability only enhances their attractiveness. By contrast, conventional colleges have been hiking tuition fees so much that students naturally wonder whether the diploma they receive is worth the six-figure debt.”

(First Things,