What Happened to Catholic Working Class Colleges?

David Leonhardt, in the January 18 New York Times, asked whether the “heyday of the colleges that serve[d] America’s working class is over.” He reminisces about the City College of New York, which used to cost only a few hundred dollars a year but was the “Harvard of the proletariat.” He laments the fact that good, quality higher education seems progressively out of the reach of many Americans.

I sympathize. While I am not partisan of the solutions floated in the recent election on the Democratic side of the aisle (free tuition at tax-payer expense), I also do not think we should be content with the current state of collegiate affairs, just hoping that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” fixes it. The reasons schools are in this mess are complex, with only some (but still some) due to greed for lucre. But I am also disappointed that Leonhardt does not talk about how Catholic colleges and universities contributed to economic mobility.

I attended now defunct St. Mary’s College in Orchard Lake, Michigan, from 1977-81. Room, board, and tuition freshman year was $2,300 per annum. By the time I graduated, it had edged up to about $4,000. Still, I could pay for college with the $247/month Social Security surviving child’s benefit of my factory worker father plus a summer job. I thank God I graduated with no debt.

St. Mary’s was pretty working class: most of my classmates came from blue collar or lower middle class families from Polish American factory towns and cities: Perth Amboy, NJ; Chicago; Detroit; Michigan City, IN; Adams, MA; Seymour, CT; Greensburg, PA; Cumberland, RI.

In my graduate school days, Fordham University still had a solid “working class” contingent. It was the Catholic university that catered to and lifted up the Catholic community in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, not just with lay leaders but the priests and nuns that served them. Later, my first faculty position brought me to St. John’s University in Staten Island, New York. Most of my students were Italian-Americans from Staten Island or Brooklyn, and most of them designed their class schedules to finish up by 1:25 p.m. every day so they could go to work. Finally, when I taught at Seton Hall, I knew that the community and its Catholics whom we primarily served were in New Jersey.

I’ve been around higher education long enough to see its changes, and I’m not convinced they’ve all been for the common good, either society’s or the Church’s. One of my main concerns is the growing divorce between schools and communities.

Schools began to fixate on “diversity,” and one way they sought to achieve it was through recruitment far and wide in a geographical sense. Now, I don’t deny that geographical diversity benefits students: as a kid from New Jersey, my horizons expanded greatly by going to school at a small, Midwest liberal arts Catholic college.

But geographical diversity seems to have become such a mantra that many schools have attenuated their attachment to their own communities. I am glad that New Jersey schools look for potential students in East Oregon, but I’d prefer a focus on East Orange. Inside of trolling the Province of New Brunswick, I’d look in the city of East Brunswick.

One driver of this quest is the deforming influence of rankings: a New York school gets more points for recruiting in California than in Canarsie, and woe to the administrator that does not pay sufficient attention to the numbers of U.S. News and World Report, not just because his boss does or because it’s considered professionally de rigeur, but because too many kids are also steering their applications according to the magic numbers they churn out annually.

If we were really interested in “working class colleges,” we’d develop a love of the local. Let’s face it: a young person from Yonkers would not in theory have to stretch his educational dollars quite as far to attend Fordham as Florida. Yes, there is value in broadening one’s horizons and the “live in” college experience benefits students in terms of autonomy, independence, and self-reliance. That said, let’s set some priorities: if the choice is between being able to go to college with less debt locally versus burdening one’s self with greater debt further away, the former probably makes more sense.

Now, I say “theoretically” local attendance can stretch educational dollars. I know that’s not necessarily true, but I’ll say more about that below.

Private institutions like Catholic colleges and universities are tuition-driven institutions. While Leonhardt notes that state legislators are cutting funding for public colleges and universities, driving up costs at “working class colleges,” they still have something Catholic schools don’t: a state legislature that, at the end of the day, they can rely on. At Catholic institutions, tuition pays the bills: if they do not meet enrollment targets, they can’t. As in the case of public versus private primary and secondary education, the publics have a built-in edge.

Yet the majority of Catholic colleges and universities have traditionally been “working class colleges.” That’s not just history or economics. It’s social justice. At a time that most jobs now presuppose at least some tertiary education, Catholic colleges should promote social justice in their policies by making themselves more affordable and recruit more economically challenged (but qualified) students.

Granted, college costs are high, but they have also far outpaced inflation, a phenomenon that has also affected Catholic institutions. Some factors lie beyond their control, e.g., the decline of teaching priests and religious, whose “contributed services” artificially suppressed real costs. Some factors are in their control: in most colleges, growth in administrations has far outpaced growth in faculty. Some factors are morally dubious: in the “tuition game,” as one college put it, if you charge too little, do potential students take you seriously? Lastly, some factors are a two-edged sword: providing for the “live in” college experience expands your potential formative influence as an institution and enables you to expand the geographical compass of your recruitment, but it also elevates your base costs: dorms and 24/7 on-campus infrastructure costs more money. For a tuition-driven school to pay those costs, the base tuition generally rises even for local students, which potentially has an impact on affordability. It seems a vicious circle: by raising base costs, a school’s “home town” advantage is possibly diminished. The more schools do this, the less the local advantage, further weakening their local nexus.

How does this relate to social justice? Subsidiarity is a cardinal principle of Catholic social thought: larger or more removed levels or institutions should not take over what smaller or more local one can do. It seems the same can be said of higher education: with due regard for geographical diversity, a Catholic institution should first “tend its own garden” by insuring its local roots and service are firm and comprehensive. That might go a long way towards recovering the “working class” Catholic college.

Why is that important? Haven’t Catholics “made it,” moved up on the economic ladder as they moved out of the ethnic ghetto? Yes and no.

My generation’s ethnics—the children or, more often, grandchildren of European immigrants, typically the first generation to attend college, are more firmly in at least the lower middle class, if not the middle class. The problem is: the goal posts have moved. Unlike the past, people’s current hold on a higher rung in the economic ladder is far more tenuous. Indeed, various studies suggest we live in times when the next generation will not be in a better position than its predecessor’s.

But the same New York Times that reported the demise of “working class colleges” also noted another salient fact: elite colleges are just as much enclaves of the economic elite as they have always been. “At 38 colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League … more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent. Roughly one in four of the richest students attend an elite college (universities that typically cluster toward the top of the annual ranking lists.”  In other words, poorer kids are losing colleges that provide their escalator into the middle class, but the well-heeled have done well preserving their network of alliances and connections.

Which makes it even more important that Catholic colleges and universities exercise a “preferential option for the poor” as a matter of Catholic social teaching.

If you have not recently experienced a young person’s college application process, you should. The numbers of schools included in the application process has grown. More kids are competing for a fixed number of places in freshman classes. It has become a seller’s market: colleges have artificial base tuition prices, which they will then discount as needed to make possible the matriculation of particular students these schools want for their magic, usually undefined, “diversity” mix. In the name of a “college that looks like America,” we instead have colleges that can make connections, wealth, race, sex, geography, or any other number of factors beyond a student’s control the decisive criteria for getting that coveted admission letter. (Let’s not even ask how the flood of foreign students competing for those fixed spots in the freshman class could distort the admissions process and/or tempt colleges to be less generous in financial aid.) Is this how we move the next generation forward?

One reason Donald Trump is president is the discontent felt by working and middle class Americans who feel their economic security and position in life is threatened. Nor is this just a right/left issue: Bernie Sanders got a lot of mileage by talking about economic inequality. And while Catholic social teaching rejects class envy, it also recommends social policies to overcome the inequality that often fuels that envy. A more prosperous community benefits everyone, not by Robin Hood-like redistribution (even when disguised as tax policy) but by raising all boats. Alas, too often economic conservatives assume that automatically happens when Adam Smith controls the canal lock. Experience shows it doesn’t, and that it typically must be built up over the long-term and cemented through the economic progress education usually brings. (Of course, this also involves education—especially Catholic education—recovering a moral mission, but that’s a separate article.)

Catholic colleges and universities can play a real social justice mission in serving to expand the middle class by working to move young people—especially local young people—up the economic ladder. That might presuppose looking at the role they play in the overall world of higher education differently. There has been a lot of debate over how Catholic colleges and universities should fulfill their identity and mission as “Catholic” institutions, much focused on the integrity of their theology programs. That’s important. But important, too, is their niche in the overall world of American higher education. Perhaps looking at that role differently—by redefining “diversity” as fostering upward economic mobility in their own communities—is a good Catholic starting point. 

John M. Grondelski

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John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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