WASHINGTON (CNS) — An emphasis on online learning, increasingly stressed endowments and questions over how to best connect with students’ wants and needs are among challenges facing Catholic higher education.

These were some of the lessons of the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities Feb. 3-5 in Washington. The theme of the meeting was “Rethinking Catholic Higher Education in a Transformed Landscape.”

Other takeaways were that the number of Catholic institutions in America is likely to decline and that an effective way to maintain a Catholic identity on campuses is to have chapels in dormitories and priests in residence halls.


On top of the financial and faith challenges, all higher education institutions must struggle with a growing public perception questioning the value of college.

A recent New America Foundation poll on higher education showed that 51 percent of adults “agree that there are lots of well-paying jobs that do not require college attendance,” although 75 percent thought it “is easier to be successful with a degree than without.”

A degree is “worth $1.3 million over just having a high school diploma, but that perception is not out there,” said Lucie Lapovsky, a consultant who addressed a Feb. 4 plenary session.

“Right now, two-thirds of all new jobs that are being created require a post-secondary education,” said John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University in Washington, said at a conference concurrent session. “There are 3 million unfilled jobs that require this currently. … Since 1983, higher education has underperformed the economy. Jobs that required post-secondary education go unfilled. But you wouldn’t know that in the public narrative we’re living with today.”

DeGioia said that the belief in “the significance of knowledge” is threatened by a national “erosion of trust.”

As for endowments and their investments, Lapovsky warned that with an average annual return of 4.6 percent, an average spending rate of 4.4 percent “does not allow endowments to keep up with inflation.”

Of more than 200 Catholic institutions higher education that currently exist, “I actually think there will be fewer institutions in 20 years,” she said. The smaller colleges need to ask themselves “Is our self-preservation really for the students or for the institution?”


Another challenge without easy solutions is the difficulty in connecting with a generation who has never not known social media, where “their Instagram feed is a measure of their self-worth” said Shannon Tabaldo, director of digital development at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Jesuit Father Joseph McShane, president of Fordham University in New York, spoke of the need for educators to become “fluent in their language,” but Tabaldo insisted that it’s mostly no longer a spoken language, with students no longer comprehending being “talked at” in classrooms, since they “instead take in all their information digitally.”

Regarding a strong Catholic identity, “I think we have to have a better language around values,” said Jon McGee, vice present for planning and strategy at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota.

Making a case for a Catholic education means emphasizing that “soft skills” — interpersonal attributes and qualities such as emotional intelligence and the ability to communicate well with co-workers — “are in fact not ‘soft skills’ at all. I think it’s up to us to talk about things like agency, efficacy, responsibility, morality.”

“You meet people where they are,” advised Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, during a plenary session. “You presume the good in them, and hope they’ll presume the good in you.”

He added, “Francis has been raised up at this moment to speak a language of word and gesture.”

DeGioia spoke of “living the good” and his belief that Catholic higher education is much more than “the transformational transmission of information,” but instead is “a way of being, a way of engaging with the world, a way of life.”

Holy Cross Father Mark L. Poorman, president of the University of Portland in Oregon, said that to live out Pope Francis’ advice that “this is a generation that appreciates accompaniment,” in-residence priests and chapels in dormitories — something done both at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Portland — are effective at transmitting values.

“The result is a remarkably effective Catholic outreach.” Weekly Masses in residence halls “are packed. And they’re backed by all the students.”

Father Poorman called encounter and accompaniment “a true evangelical gift and a mainstay of our Catholic identity.” Students “don’t want a mere didactic presence or a lecture. They want a dialogue.” And that means that they wean themselves off impersonal social media and “discover, slowly but surely, the beauty of holding conversations.”

“We’re challenged to lead or take the risk of being led,” McGee warned.

Father McShane cautioned against “thinking that challenges have not been endured in past ages. This is not the case. … We’ve been through this before. We’ve learned how to adapt.”