Over the past couple of months, I have begun to hear more about the impending “enrollment cliff”. University of Pittsburgh analytics professor Andy Hannah estimated that the number of students entering their first year of college will decline by around 15% in 2025. This considerable reduction in future enrollment numbers originates from the financial crisis in 2008 that resulted in a decrease in birth rates.
Universities must develop innovative ideas to manage this phenomenon while addressing the financial aspect of a plunge in student attendance. This enrollment dilemma coincides with a time when many Americans seem to be increasingly becoming more disaffiliated from religious groups. The Pew Research Center conducted a study in which they found that in 2020, 30% of the American population could be categorized as religious “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated. This same study also projected that by 2070, religious “nones” could represent between 34% and 52% of the population. When looking at the statistics of enrollment drops and potential increases in religious disaffiliation, it is almost instinctual to ponder how this will influence religious universities.
I believe that religious universities have a unique opportunity to sustain enrollment during the impending reduction. Thinking back to the last couple of years, it seems to me that social justice initiatives have only increased. During 2020, we witnessed a rise in support for the Black Lives Matter movement as protests and social media efforts to bolster the movement began to take shape. In 2022, the Mental Health Collaboration Reauthorization Act was passed to improve many areas of mental health support, such as strengthening crisis intervention teams.
This social justice-related topic has only increased in support and decreased stigmatization over the past few years. It is clear to me that while there are always counter-responses, social justice issues have gained substantial priority in many people’s minds. This closely relates to the discussion of religious universities since many faith communities not only support social justice causes but also view discrimination in any manner as contradicting religious teachings of acceptance.
One of the cornerstones of Ignatian spirituality, in particular, is a commitment to social justice causes. For students who value these topics, religious schools—particularly Jesuit ones—present a model of education that incorporates these values into the learning experience. Of course, public universities also have clubs or events that incorporate social justice themes. However, religious schools expand on this spotlight even more by incorporating it into the framework of education. Many religious schools also frequently offer service-based learning trips that promote humanitarianism and camaraderie in the student body.
Another factor that I believe will help faith-based schools endure despite the “enrollment cliff” is the nature of entering a school where many people share similar religious customs. Attending college with like-minded peers who value the same principles and ethics as you do can be very reassuring. While having various thoughts and opinions is crucial for healthy debates, I believe this can still occur in an environment where people share similar overarching religious principles.
Even if you do not belong to the same religion as your university or if you are not religious at all, I would think it could still be comforting to study in an atmosphere that prioritizes values such as serving others. Across the board, there are messages to be taken from faith-based groups that, while initially religiously identifiable, can still be applied to everyday life in a way that encourages altruism. Time will only tell how universities nationwide evolve to meet not only the advancements and demands of society, but also the setbacks of potentially challenging circumstances such as declines in enrollment.