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Why Catholic college enrollments are going to crater very soon

The “Catholic” schools that in the name of their “academic freedom” and “institutional autonomy” defended contraception since 1968 can now ask how they plan to keep the lights on.

(Image: Nathan Dumlao |

St. John’s University in New York is the third largest Catholic university in the United States. Its current enrollment is a tad shy of 20,000 students.

I got my start in academics at St. John’s back in 1985. Back in the 1980s, St. John’s was probably the largest Catholic university in the United States.

The University’s primary operation was in Queens, but I worked on the Staten Island campus. The Staten Island campus had been taken over by St. John’s from Notre Dame College in 1971. Notre Dame was a small Catholic women’s college which, by the early 1970s, was suffering significant enrollment declines. Cardinal Terence Cooke did not want to lose another Catholic institution in the Archdiocese of New York, so he worked with the Vincentians of St. John’s, turning Notre Dame College into the University’s Staten Island campus.

Fast forward to fall 2023. St. John’s University’s webpage features its freshman Student Convocation. But it quietly notes the fact that St. John’s University Staten Island has just begun its last academic year. When the spring semester ends next May, so will the school.

Cardinal Cooke bought a 53-year lease-on-life on what had been Notre Dame College, but the University announced a year ago that it would close operations on Staten Island. It decided to stay open these two years to allow upper classmen, presumably already into their majors, to complete their programs.

Why is it dying? Numbers.

When I was at St. John’s Staten Island, the institution generally had about 2,000+ students on campus. Staten Island has a considerable Catholic population (about 33% of the borough is ethnically Italian). Tuition was generally affordable for working-class students because expenses were low. The school was wholly commuter, so the greatest “amenity” on campus was a lunchtime cafeteria. Classes ran from 8 am to 10 pm (i.e., 14 hours a day). Faculty wages were low. I started life as an adjunct, teaching 150 students for $11K per year. A year later, when they made me a “full-time” faculty member, I got 202 students starting at $19K per year—in New York.

The decision to close St. John’s came because enrollment has now fallen to about 800+ students. Part of that is the result of enrollment declines that never recovered after COVID. Part of it is the decline of Catholic high schools on Staten Island, traditional feeders to St. John’s. But the greatest factor is the so-called “enrollment cliff” or “demographic ditch”. And that’s something we’re not talking enough about, because I predict its impact on what is left of “Catholic higher education” will be devastating.

Put simply: college enrollments are going to crater starting in 2025.

The most immediate cause was the great birth dearth of 2007-08. Kids that should have been born in those years would now be high school juniors, going with their parents through the angst and excitement of picking a college.

Except those kids aren’t there.

The 2007-09 recession resulted in people not getting married and, if they did, not having children. That demographic slump didn’t pick up when better economic times came. It remained below average: America’s fertility rate is now below replacement level and would be even worse than it is but for the fruitfulness and multiplication of immigrants.

So, if you are a college administrator, you have years of desks ahead of you with no one to sit behind them.

That’s the “immediate cause.” There are, of course, deeper causes.

One reason I was initially attracted to St. John’s was that, at least back then, it consciously strove to be an orthodox Catholic institution. I remember my interview with the Vincentian college dean. He asked me, “How would you explain Humanae vitae to an undergrad?” I was ready. I had just written a dissertation defending the pre-papal sexual ethics of Karol Wojtyła, so I presented my version of Lublin Thomism. He stared at me over his bifocals, satisfied I was not a dissident theologian but added: “I see you go in for this new-fangled stuff from John Paul.” Nobody ever subsequently has called John Paul and me “new-fangled.”

But while St. John’s at least tried to adhere to Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, other “Catholic” universities did not. Catholic sexual ethics as taught in most “Catholic” college theology or religious studies departments are rarely supportive or even particularly sympathetic. If you want Catholic sexual ethics, you probably have to go to a seminary—and even that could be dicey. (The bifurcation between “university” and “seminary” theology is the subject for another essay).

So, the “Catholic” schools that in the name of their “academic freedom” and “institutional autonomy” defended contraception since 1968 can now ask how they plan to keep the lights on. Because those renewed octogenarian nuns in pantsuits are not a large, promising demographic.

“But,” you say, “the biggest Catholic schools out there right now are the ones with ‘progressive’ theological orientations! Georgetown is number 1, DePaul number 2, Fordham 5, Boston 7, Notre Dame 8!”

Well, let’s look at the writing–or at least the numbers–on the wall.

Georgetown is enrolling just a little under 21,000 students. By contrast, two years ago (the last numbers I have for this cohort), Texas A&M stood at almost 73,000 students. Rutgers has just under 69,000 students. My son graduated from George Mason University last May. GMU’s total May graduating pool—a Virginia record—was 11,000.

In other words, GMU’s graduates were just over 50% of the largest Catholic university’s entire enrollment.

Let’s take another metric. West Virginia University enrolls a student body just shy of 25,000—that is, about 17% more students than Georgetown. That number is significant, but not astounding. And remember we are comparing apples and oranges. Georgetown is a private institution, West Virginia a public school. When WVU can’t pay its bills, it has the chance to run to something called the West Virginia Legislature (even if it doesn’t get a handout). Georgetown doesn’t.

That was very apparent when I was an associate dean at Seton Hall. I used to attend the weekly deans’ meeting with the Provost. The Provost wasn’t worried about my issues in the seminary. The lion’s share of every meeting, especially from September recruitment to May college decisions, was undergraduate enrollment numbers. In a tuition-driven Catholic university, those numbers were the difference between paying and not paying your bills.

I mention WVU because, not having been baled by the state legislature, its governing board is cutting programs severely, cuts that fall heavily on the liberal arts side of the aisle, which is usually the unique aspect of Catholic higher education. If a state school is doing those kinds of cuts ahead of the enrollment cliff, what should that be telling smaller Catholic schools whose financial backups are often more precarious?

I was an undergraduate from 1977-81. In my time, the Grim Reaper was already coming for the tiniest Catholic colleges. Places that literally enrolled a handful of students—places like Connecticut’s Albertus Magnus, New Jersey’s Don Bosco, Michigan’s Duns Scotus—are gone. My son’s graduating class was 11,000; mine was 22. Needless to say, St. Mary’s College of Orchard Lake, Michigan, is now also extinct.

But even back then I learned that the private sector in Michigan was but a shadow of its public counterparts: even the biggest school, the Jesuit-run University of Detroit, was a pale reflection of the size of the University of Michigan or Michigan State. I point this out because the Catholic private sector in higher education has always been fragile vis-à-vis the publics.

I also predict another wave of Catholic college closures.

When I was in college, a Catholic university enrolling even 800 students would have felt good about itself. That St. John’s is squeezed by “only” 800 students says something about the overall macroeconomics of higher education. My most cursory survey of current college statistics anecdotally suggests that 2,000-2,200 is about the minimum full-time equivalent student enrollment “floor” a school currently needs to remain viable.

Now, children have always been “precious.” But, in this extremely competitive college environment, they are even more precious … especially to admissions directors, budget directors, and college presidents. But even if we started talking seriously about the virtues of being fruitful and multiplying, that won’t solve the college problem until the class of 2044 at the earliest.

And Catholic colleges just don’t have the money—tuition, reserves, endowments—to keep paying expensive faculty and even more expensive administrators through the next 21 famine years.

We can talk about all sorts of strategies, including “lifelong learning,” “distance education,” government subsidies, vocational focus, and more. But, in some sense, they’re all palliatives, a bandage on a hemorrhage, because they don’t replace the lack of people.

One college analyst warns: “By 2030, our nation will have far fewer colleges than it does now, with many privates — and perhaps some publics — becoming extinct after decades, even centuries, of existence.” Catholics in the United States can be proud that they built a robust network of Church-affiliated higher education, even despite their warts, that at least numerically is unmatched in any other country. Like our parish network, the next decade may see severe contractions among them.

The challenge is: how do we make them birth pangs, not mortal cardiac arrythmia? That’s why we need a discussion now.

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About John M. Grondelski, Ph.D. 18 Articles
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He publishes regularly in the National Catholic Register and in theological journals. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.


  1. Speaking of Jesuits, dogs and their Master – Katholic Kolleges have bitten the hand that fed them. So yes, they will starve.
    And they are bad values. Texas A&M can be done in State for about $150K or less. Many get a degree for much less after two years at Community College with guaranteed credit transfer. Lone Star CC has 137K kids! Have known homeschooled HS students graduate with 2 years, 60 hours of Dual Credit. And the TAMU St. Mary’s has more students at Mass each Sunday than any other school. Job network is massive. Etc. Why pay $300K?

    • Catholic identity is key if any Catholic University would survive. With few exceptions, sending your kid to a Catholic University is an expensive illusion.

      Look closely at the Boards of so called Catholic Universities (except some Newman list schools). They are controlled by laity who have money, but are basically clueless about the Catholic mission (and operation) of the institution. The charism of some legacy (dying) religious order is rarely understood much less applied by Board Members. The application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae is at best an afterthought. Schools run by legacy orders like Jesuits are often worse. Most religious Board members are actually anti-Catholic according to any remotely traditional definition, and have no business experience! Look at their leaders, professors, dorms, clubs – these may as well be at a cheaper Secular School with a decent pocket or two of faithful Catholic activity.

      Secularized Universities with Catholic names that do not reform to embrace Sacred Scripture and Tradition, will slowly die out from infidelity to God, but also as bad business plans.

  2. I attended a Jesuitical high school in the late 1960’s. By the time they had graduated, few of my classmates practiced the Catholic faith. Many didn’t even believe in God.

    My best friend at that time, who somehow — incredibly — hadn’t had enough of the Jesuiticals in high school, attended the University of Detroit. He emerged from there a devout atheist. And so he remains.

    I do respect a handful of stalwart Catholic colleges. But most of the rest I consider more harm than good.

    Take St. Louis University — another Jesuitical institution — as an example. Several years ago it went to court to prove it was not Catholic in order to make sure its stream of government funding was uninterrupted.

    I take them at their word. In fact I have my doubts about whether the organization that runs St. Louis U. is actually Catholic.

    When I read Dr. Grondelski’s commentary, I admit I am unconcerned. At this point, I consider most of these schools a hindrance to the faith of our young people.

    What did they think would happen once their advocacy for abortion gained traction anyway?

    Not only do they advocate evil, they are also not terribly intelligent.

    Good riddance, I say.

    • I recognize all these challenges. My Jesuit alma mater, Fordham, also has serious problems. We can say “a pox on all your houses.” But — then — what? Can we sacrifice an infrastructure for which we have NO replacement plans? Or will we, like American political conservatives, be silly enough to decide politics and business are what matters and we can abandon the culture-forming institutions: academia, media, the arts. That’s gotten us lots of benefits, right?

      • Mr. Grondelski, you say that we need a discussion, but do you have any proposals to start this discussion?

        I believe that your statement, ” Or will we, like American political conservatives, be silly enough to decide politics and business are what matters and we can abandon the culture-forming institutions: academia, media, the arts,” is too all inclusive of political conservatives. You are definitely not going to get any help on this from political liberals.

        These Catholic colleges are not just neutral on the faith – students lose their faith attending them. I would not recommend that any of my relatives attend my Jesuit alma mater.

    • We already have good catholic institutions of higher education. And more coming on line…we need to promote them for basic degrees in the professions and steer all others towards the trades…the list includes steubenville, Aquinas,magdalen,christendom, the new university of Dallas etc and more but I agree that these so called catholic universities should reform or shrivel up and die….

  3. The central question for all Catholic colleges and universities is this: What distinguishes the education you offer from the neighboring secular atheistic college? If you’re left scratching your head, begin planning your closure now.

  4. I don’t understand your assault on “those renewed octogenarian nuns in pantsuits.” When I had the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station (NJ) in grammar school, they had 2000+ in their community and now have 46. I had the Dominicans of New York in high school; they haven’t had a novice since 1971. I just don’t get your attempt at establishing causality.

      • You mean the ones that have run Mount St. Mary College into the ground? I worked as a professor for them for three years and they could not stand that I teach Church teaching in the Religious Studies department. They are already a conglomeration of seven or so other dying orders trying to stick together to survive. They should just close their doors and say “we’re sorry.”

  5. Deacon Peitler expresses the heart of the issue. Catholic academia has fallen to the level of the enlightened secularist. And it is a reflection of the spiritual malaise of the general nominal Catholic population. A sense that what the Church teaches formally has no relevance to reality. That attitude isn’t helped by the current Vatican.
    Read a brief commentary by historian Roberto de Mattei who believes that Europe, in general the West, is not yet dead. It’s sick, capable of recuperation. He, as I believe that this requires a return to the more fiery, committed Christianity of the nascent Church. When we read the Fathers it becomes vividly clear there are two vastly different visions of the faith. Back then the faith was blood and fire, today rationed practicality the result of intellectual trends since the Renaissance.
    Some comments on this site are severely critical of that ‘glorious’ period of art and faith, perceiving it as worldly compared to the Eastern rites. That’s a matter of contention since the missionary effort of the Latin West immeasurably outshone the East. Russian orthodoxy claims evangelization from Europe to N Am. We may say that claim is a fallacy since Russia’s advance East to Alaska was conquest. Then that’s what Protestants say about Spain and Portugal in the West. The test of veracity are the vibrant cultures that appeared in the West, whereas the sparsely populated Russian East wasn’t significant.
    A detriment of Renaissance legacy was the revival of Greek anthropological thought, the primacy of intellectual exploration to wit a trend toward secular humanism. Boccaccio, the Decameron, and Petrarch laid the intellectual foundation for that humanism and its indelible mark on Western religiosity. Haven’t read de Mattei’s views on this, although I think he agrees at least in part.
    We can argue about the benefits of a more explorative intellectual mindset that produced the great teachings of the West, and its negative aspects. For the issue that Grondelski covers here it would seem that emphasis on the creativity of the intellect affected the digression of faith based spiritually. Still, there’s hope for revival.

  6. What should we do. Teach your children the unchanging truths of the Faith and the natural law. Encourage them to have large families and experience the happiness surrounding an open to life family. Choose schools and Colleges that re despise the evils of contraception, abortion, and sexual perversion, and promote familial love, beautiful art and reverent liturgy, and Biblical truths about the work ethic and salvation through love of God and love of neighbor.

  7. For the most part no loss. It’s just too bad that the likes of Georgetown and DePaul aren’t on the endangered list. Catholicism at most Catholic universities has been hard to find. This has been going on for decades.

  8. I read an article recently which stated that Catholic elementary and High Schools should not just be public schools with a religion class thrown in. I am afraid that most of our Catholic colleges and universities have become public institutions with hardly a true Catholic Theology course thrown in.

  9. If elementary and highschools aren’t really Catholic, how can we expect post-secondary instutions to be Catholic?
    Parents arguably have the most influence (and interest) at the lower levels. Backwardists can start there.

    • Backwardists aren’t sufficient in number to take over a parish school. The trouble isn’t so much that the schools aren’t really Catholic, as that the Catholics aren’t really Catholic.

      It is feasible to establish an online charter school that is actually Catholic, and these exist. It’s also possible to establish a boarding school or college that is actually Catholic, as they draw from a wider area, and these exist.

  10. Thankfully, Ohio was the most recent state (of 6) to embrace universal school choice for K-12. Not without challenges, but it certainly provides the financial breathing room necessary to embrace other operational improvements. Hopefully, we’ll be able to better encourage and evangelize to both strong and lukewarm Catholic students, as well as our Protestant and agnostic youth (if not always their families). If a truly “Catholic culture” is embraced and interwoven through all classes and activities, and curriculum re-focused (ex., Theology of the Body), and faith-filled teachers and administrators hired with the skills and fervor of true Catholics, perhaps we’ll create a pool of faithful students who are attracted to faithful universities.

  11. Backwardists may not be sufficient in number but the growth of homeschooling suggests there is a nucleus. Not all parents are up to the task of homeschooling or starting their own school and newcomers especially are dependant on good schools. As Mr. Grondelski says, do we really want to completely scrap the infrastructure that has already been built up?

    We are told in Scripture to read he signs of the times (Matt XXIV, 3-4). In the context of Prof. Grondelski’s article, all we need do is take just a moment to consider the obvious but as yet hardly commented upon reality of the world’s population and our collective future over the next 75 years, something that is already set in concrete.
    The world’s fertility rate prior to 1960 was 6, i.e., children born to each female of child bearing age – 14 to 44. The ‘Pill’ became a reality in 1960 and an increasingly sexualized world population suddenly found its means to indulge itself in an even more complete way. The barbaric ways of old civilizations, some of which threw their unwanted babies over the City’s walls was definitively superseded by the definitive rejection of children in favor of the sexual urge, and the inhumanity of abortion became justified as a remedy for ‘mistakes’. Today, the world fertility rate is about 1.5.
    The former diminishing Christian elements in Europe and the U.S are leading the way to a future which they seem to little expect or fear. A total world population of 8 or 9 billion people today, kept healthy by modern medicine, is now totally dominated by the infertile and ‘super-annuated’. Currently they are about 75%, or so. The growth industry of the future is the mortuary business. By 2025, even the UN recognizes the world will have been reduced to a few billion (It looks like one billion to me) and the future after that is uncertain at best. Along with all the babies we will have refused to have, or willfully killed by abortion, is the diminishing segment of society we could least afford to lose – girls between 14 and 44.
    In the face of this reality (one which my grandchildren and ‘greats’ will have to confront) the reality of a complete Catholic education including Catechism, Apologetics, Philosophy, Theology, the Sacraments and the elements of the spiritual life, will be entirely dependent on the elements of a residual Catholic family life – perhaps similar to the life of the early Christians. The great question then is how well our Catholic life will be populated by coteries of spiritually well-formed parents who will protect and guide the Faith of our descendants. Will our residual Clerics and ordinary Faithful measure up to the monumental task?
    All of my children have attended Catholic education into College. The youngest of my grandchildren is now in university – most have been in Catholic institutions. My numerous ‘greats’ are now on the edge of higher education.
    Unfortunately, I share Dr. Grondelski’s angst. Those beautiful and great institutions of the past have a limited future – whether they are faithful to the elements of our holy religion or not.
    Mankind will soon-enough have to face the realty of what it has brought about.

  13. A small area of hope are the Catholic Newman Centers on state university campuses IF they are staffed by diocesan priests. The Centers staffed by religious orders are questionable in orthodoxy. Kudos to Bishop Earl Fernandes for replacing the Paulists at Ohio State university Newman Center with diocesan priests. Some of these Centers even have their own dorms. Here you can get good spiritual and catechetical formation at state university prices. Such Centers are even making the Jesuit universities nervous

  14. Look to Fr Michael Scanlan and pray for Franciscan University of Steubenville that, as it expands, it remains faithful to his intention, Roman Catholic or bust.

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