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Loyola NO secular dalliance leading to its decline

The troubles experienced by New Orleans’ Loyola University both are predictable and were preventable, mirroring national trends by colleges operating under a bishop’s imprimatur.

It seems the school must undergo a third round of retrenchment in three years to stay open. Involving substantial layoffs because of disappointing enrollments, this has provoked faculty unrest, leading to yet another nonconfidence motion against its president the Rev. Kevin Wildes.

Wildes alleged in the past that generally declining high school graduations have put Loyola into difficulty. But that ignores nationally this bottomed out a couple of years ago and has since increased, while higher education enrollment has slipped since 2011. Louisiana has followed the nation’s elementary and secondary education with its recent graduation rates rising even faster.

Perhaps also, particular to New Orleans, school reform measures have shrunk the local marketplace. Catholic school graduates have dwindled, who disproportionately attend Catholic colleges. In part, more and better options such as charter schools and technological innovation making virtual and home schooling more easily attained also have eaten into this pipeline. In the area the Diocese of New Orleans has had to close a number of schools, especially after the hurricane disasters of 2005.

Yet these trends have also found amelioration, particularly in other state policy creating and expanding Louisiana’s voucher scholarship program. Catholic elementary and secondary education received most of these benefits of the state paying tuition for children in poor schools or who would have attended these to attend public or private schools.

Other reasons exist globally: a marginally improving economic environment, a flat rate of demographic growth among those 24 and younger, and tuition levels that have gotten too far advanced. The latter becomes compounded by the fact that completion rates have increased disproportionately among lower-income families (and has led Pope Francis to warn against Catholic schools becoming elitist.)

That aspect also addresses Loyola’s woes, as a typically smaller and relatively expensive institution compared to public ones. Formally Catholic schools like Loyola, which decades ago charged next to nothing if that for many lower-income students, now have become among the least affordable for that group. Loyola charges nearly $39,000 a year, or four times Louisiana State University Baton Rouge.

Regardless of socioeconomic status, if a school charges such a premium, it must have value added to attract students. And as a university run by the Society of Jesus, that extra selling point could be an authentically Catholic education, which secular schools cannot replicate.

Except that, following other Jesuit-run schools in particular and more generally a large portion of nominally Catholic institutions, they have desisted from offering exactly that kind of education. At one time nakedly holding itself out as “Social Justice U,” today it more subtly pledges its fealty to a narrow and constricting interpretation of what it means to live a Catholic existence, one filtered more surely through the lens of political ideology than a more comprehensive understanding of the human condition, through various missions and academic departments and auxiliaries that promote its definition of “social justice.”

Here lies the foremost problem Loyola and many such institutions face: they offer a secular education with a little Catholicism thrown in on the side, having promoted a social gospel to a greater position of prominence than the real ones. A student could attend a host of other secular schools that deliver the same at far less expense, so why choose Loyola?

Indeed, while many such schools suffer the same problems of declining enrollments, the Catholic institutions that offer a real differentiation from what the secular world teaches largely find themselves not only not encountering this difficulty, but some have the opposite problem of servicing pent-up demand. Families and students who seek an education firmly based on the eternal verities of Catholicism simply will not seek out the likes of Loyola using the model it presently follows.

Loyola’s enrollment problem comes down to its cosmetic Catholic identity filtering the way in which it educates. Relatively indistinct from but way more costly than secular schools, only by adopting an approach more reflective of the Catholic faith that puts secular ideologies and beliefs in perspective (called by institutions that practice that a “faithful Catholic education”) can it distinguish itself in a way that can build on a potential strength to attract more students willing to pay that premium. Its current course makes it nothing special.

It doesn’t have to, of course, but that likely keeps it on a descending course. Clearly the secular superstructure ordering its education isn’t working in today’s higher education marketplace. Further decline would be a shame in a state notable for the Catholic presence within it and the contributions Catholicism has made to it.

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