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An astonishing thing is happening at traditional, faith-based colleges. While national college enrollment has decreased by 13 percent over the last decade, these institutions have demonstrated that it is possible to emerge from COVID, economic recession, and a smaller national pool of applicants with record-breaking enrollment. 

Take Thomas Aquinas College. When the school opened its doors in California a half-century ago, a handful of students were willing to take a chance on a novel curriculum that ditched textbooks and lectures in favor of student-led discussions of humanity’s greatest works. Far from sharing in the troubles of others, Thomas Aquinas College just celebrated the first graduating class at a brand new campus in Massachusetts. Expanding to New England helped double the school’s capacity without jeopardizing its low student-to-teacher ratio.

Benedictine College in Kansas likewise offers a Great Books program, and, thanks to the administration’s focused drive to return to the basics, the college’s enrollment doubled between 2004 and 2022. Furthermore, graduation rates jumped 28 percent as motivated students hungered for the challenge of the more rigorous and rewarding curriculum.

Michigan’s Hillsdale College avoided the statewide decline in undergraduate enrollment—among the worst in the nation—with applications climbing 53 percent. That gave the classically minded school flexibility to become more selective than it has ever been with admissions. 

Flexing the strength of its classical core curriculum, the University of Dallas welcomed the second largest incoming class in its sixty-six-year history, while Florida’s Ave Maria University boasts an enrollment up by half thanks to its dedication to eternal values. 

This is just a sampling of institutions that have embraced a curriculum rooted in Western tradition—and the faith—only to discover their programs have become more relevant, not less so, to a younger generation. It turns out that chasing educational fads and emphasizing the political themes of the day doesn’t much impress modern audiences. To the contrary, a rising number of students today are drawn to schools that emphasize tradition and faith.

Full enrollment combined with donations from enthusiastic alumni and donors have allowed classically minded institutions to keep tuition at modest levels—at least, compared to their conventional peers. Affordability only enhances their attractiveness. By contrast, conventional colleges have been hiking tuition fees so much that students naturally wonder whether the diploma they receive is worth the six-figure debt.

That’s why so many conventional colleges are on life support today, propping the doors open with their share of the staggering $76 billion in higher education bailout funds that postponed the day of reckoning during the pandemic. When the federal cash infusion runs out, long-term survival will depend on administrators having the courage to change direction and respond to the hunger of those eighteen-year-olds who’ve chosen schools like the ones above. Those unwilling to alter course are likely to find themselves among the growing ranks of failed institutions.

Jeremy Tate is the founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test (CLT), a humanities-focused alternative to the SAT and ACT tests.

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Photo by Harold Litwiler via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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