In the woke world of American academia, things aren’t looking so rosy.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows enrollment at America’s institutions of higher learning is down 13 percent over the past decade — and this was before COVID-19 hit and many schools went to online instruction while still demanding the same amount of money for an inferior education.
There is a bright spot in the world of higher ed, however — although not that many in academia want to hear it.
As Jeremy Tate noted in an article this month for the religious journal First Things, significant student-body growth is being seen at what he termed “traditional, faith-based colleges” — often schools that stick to rigorous academic standards and so-called Great Books curriculums.
“Take Thomas Aquinas College,” Tate wrote. “When the school opened its doors in California a half-century ago, a handful of students were willing to take a chance on a novel curriculum that ditched textbooks and lectures in favor of student-led discussions of humanity’s greatest works.
“Far from sharing in the troubles of others, Thomas Aquinas College just celebrated the first graduating class at a brand new campus in Massachusetts. Expanding to New England helped double the school’s capacity without jeopardizing its low student-to-teacher ratio.”
Another success story in the Great Books vein is Benedictine College in Kansas.
Tate noted that “thanks to the administration’s focused drive to return to the basics, the college’s enrollment doubled between 2004 and 2022. Furthermore, graduation rates jumped 28 percent as motivated students hungered for the challenge of the more rigorous and rewarding curriculum.”
Then there’s Hillsdale College, one of the most traditionally conservative schools in the United States. According to the local outlet MLive, the Michigan school was able to weather the storm that hit other universities in the state.
“Overall, Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities schools saw a 4% decline from fall 2019 to 2020, according to vice president Colby Cesaro. At Hillsdale College, first-year enrollment very slightly decreased by less than 1% during that timespan, according to data provided by the college,” the outlet reported in April.
While first-year enrollment at the school never went above 391 students in the past decade — hitting a low of 361 in 2020 — “that trend changed in a big way the next year, as enrollment surged by 16% in fall 2021 at the school of 1,500. That was buoyed by a 53% increase in applications during the same timeframe.”
Part of the increase was chalked up to Hillsdale’s lack of hysteria over COVID-19 and the concomitant restrictions that followed. However, MLive noted another deciding factor was “a classical education curriculum that sets the college apart from its peers.”
Hillsdale sophomore Jane Kitchen detailed her experience transferring to the college from the prestigious all-women’s school Bryn Mawr in a piece for Bari Weiss’ Substack newsletter Common Sense.
“I’ve been at Hillsdale for three weeks, and life here is blissfully normal,” Kitchen wrote.
“I have sorority sisters. We get together and study and play board games,” she said. “The student union and dining hall are packed. No one asks anyone else’s vaccine status. There are no mask mandates, and no mandatory COVID testing. You’ll see an occasional student in a mask but no one thinks anything of it.”
Dabney Klein of Nashville, Tennessee, whose daughter Ella was a prospective Hillsdale student, praised the curriculum as well.
“Classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness and beauty so that, in Christ, a student is better able to know, glorify and enjoy God,” she said, according to MLive.
The school says its curriculum reflects the fact Hillsdale “considers itself a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law.”
Head south from Hillsdale, meanwhile, and you’ll see the same dynamics at play at the University of Dallas — which, as the Daily Caller News Foundation notes, has a president who describes the university as a “Catholic, liberal arts university known for [its] intellectual rigor and [its] deep commitment to the Catholic faith and a robust, Western-based classical education.”
The private school in Irving, Texas, had its second-largest incoming class this fall.
“We have doubled down on our core essence and purpose as an institution and made that well known to prospective students,” said Jonathan Sanford, University of Dallas president.
“I think there’s a deep hunger in the souls of all individuals, but particularly in this generation, for a real education and real exposure to the timeless ideas and classical texts as well as real exposure to how to build upon those timeless truths and classical texts in order to be innovative contributors to the renewal of culture,” Sanford said.
Is this a sea-change in how prospective students view institutions? In his piece at First Things, Tate said he certainly hoped so, noting that big academia is being bailed out with money from Washington.
“When the federal cash infusion runs out, long-term survival will depend on administrators having the courage to change direction and respond to the hunger of those eighteen-year-olds who’ve chosen schools like the ones above,” he wrote. “Those unwilling to alter course are likely to find themselves among the growing ranks of failed institutions.”
In the meantime, a whole new group of students will have chosen academic rigor and classical, Christian education over partying and indoctrination.
It’s rare when you can say the future seems rosy — but at least in this case, forgive this writer for having at least a soupçon of optimism about the future of higher education.
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