The University of Scranton: Is the Catholic college tuition bubble showing signs of bursting?

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It’s no secret that there’s a college tuition bubble and that it’s showing signs of potentially imploding across the United States. As fewer students enroll, administrators at public and private institutions of higher education are having to make sometimes Draconian budget cuts. Oftentimes, these cuts adversely impact support staff, programs, and faculty…in that order, as The Motley Monk reported about the University of Southern Maine here.

Well, the bubble may be demonstrating signs of imploding at Catholic institutions of higher education.

According to an article in the Times-Tribune, the President of the University of Scranton, the Reverend Kevin P. Quinn, SJ, outlined some of the “difficult, even painful, decisions” to be implemented—to the tune of $4M—to align the budget better with current realities. Fr. Quinn wrote:

As a result, we will see a decrease in net tuition and fee revenue per student for the class we recruit for this fall when compared to the class that preceded it.

This problem involving enrollments and finances has been brewing for a couple of years, but evidently came to a boil at Scranton with increased operational costs and a smaller than expected entering freshman class in 2013. Having already reached the “price point” that students and parents were willing to pay or indebt themselves for a Scranton degree, the Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration, Edward Steinmetz, knew a tuition increase was off the table. Hence, the cuts.

Why is Fr. Quinn’s announcement important? Considering the landscape of U.S. Catholic higher education:

  1. Scranton is a small, tuition dependent institution. Student enrollment—hence, tuition cash flow—is the “mother’s milk” for institutional survival. As the cost of attending Scranton, for example, passes the “price point”—and with a limited number of “discounts” (ahem, “scholarships”) available to award new students—enrollments will inevitably decline, exacerbating the institution’s already fragile financial problems.
  2. As cuts evidence themselves in fewer new “attractors”—those non-educational, Disneyworld-like experiences, programs, and buildings that universities and colleges have increasingly focused upon to improve on-campus student “life” and, hence, “attract” more new students to enroll—high school seniors may be less attracted to attend an institution like Scranton. The day of “keeping up with the Jones”—at first, those were the state university systems, but increasingly in recent decades, the larger Catholic institutions—may be over.
  3. The Motley Monk knows Scranton to be a pretty good Catholic college, meaning that students generally can experience a somewhat solid Catholic culture. The only drawback is its Jesuitical emphasis upon social justice and de-emphasis upon doctrine. If a Catholic institution isn’t offering a truly Catholic education—as that has been defined by Saint John Paul II and reiterated by Benedict XVI–why would students pay a higher price point—and indebt themselves more upon graduation–when cheaper alternatives are readily available?

It’s all about supply and demand because market forces are at work. Moreover, with many students and their families having to indebt themselves  increasingly if they are to graduate from a Catholic institution of higher education, “glitz” will necessarily factor less into a decision about enrollment than whether the institution delivers on its value proposition.

Unless administrators in Catholic higher education are willing to differentiate their institutions sufficiently by providing students and parents a sufficient return on investment, the tuition bubble has the potential to alter the landscape of U.S. Catholic higher education dramatically. Why ever would they pay a “premium” for a “product” that doesn’t deliver on what’s promised?

Then, too, don’t forget that tuition revenues also provide the necessary cash flow to pay off the debts many of those institutions have incurred over the past two decades in keeping up, all in a desperate effort to attract more students.

The challenge to those administrators?

To demonstrate in fact how their institutional cultures, from the curriculum, to the classrooms, to the dormitories, and to its extra-curricular offerings actually form students from a decidedly Catholic perspective (that is, the “value added” proposition).



To read the Times-Tribune article, click on the following link:

To read The Motley Monk’s blog, Omnibus, click on the following link:

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  1. It used to be a college degree meant a job related to your field. No more, so parent’s and their kids are rightfully asking why they are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a year for a degree.

  2. “with many students and their families having to indebt themselves increasingly if they are to graduate from a Catholic institution of higher education”

    I can think of two ways to get around this problem. One might be for the Church to sink its resources into better quality Newman Centers at secular colleges; the best secular university Newman centers, such as those at U of Illinois and Texas A & M, are more supportive of Catholic life and provide a better “Catholic” education than some officially “Catholic” institutions do.

    The other might be to learn from private and Evangelical colleges that have found creative ways to prevent or discourage students from going into debt for their education. Here’s a story about the College of the Ozarks in Missouri, which actually FORBIDS its students from taking out loans:

    Is there any reason why some of the small, orthodox/classically oriented Catholic schools couldn’t follow the example of “Hard Work U” or other small colleges that traditionally let students work their way through?

  3. The Motley Monk knows Scranton to be a pretty good Catholic college, meaning that students generally can experience a somewhat solid Catholic culture. The only drawback is its Jesuitical emphasis upon social justice and de-emphasis upon doctrine.
    The Motley Monk

    College kids can play at “social doctrine” by hooking up with a College Democrats club at any secular college. And if all that’s Catholic about a college is “Catholic culture” then I say to hell with it. Venerable Archbishop Fulton J Sheen long ago recognized that Catholic children often lose their faith at Catholic colleges.

    The essential feature of a Catholic high school or college is that it teaches a rich, adult understanding of the Catholic faith, teaching that rises far above mere courses in what could be dubbed Catholic Faith Appreciation. Just look around you, see if there are any high schools and colleges you know from your direct experience that offer more than “Catholic culture” alone, that do not have more Catholic students going in than faithful Catholic graduates coming out.

    Really, though, if Catholic parents were raising their children in the faith what would be the need for most colleges that call themselves Catholic today?

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