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Here is a statistic that makes admissions deans at liberal arts colleges shudder: Between 2019 and 2022, undergraduate enrollment fell eight percent. It's a frightening decline for those schools that have small endowments and depend on tuition to operate year to year. When one of those schools comes up twenty kids short of its typical entering class of 250, layoffs, cutbacks, or restructuring and downsizing could be next. It’s going to get worse in the coming years, too: Fertility dropped after the 2008 financial crisis, so the next cohort of college-age kids will be smaller.

Any small institution that remains at full capacity, that sees applications going up even as the national applicant pool goes down, that is bold enough to open a new graduate program and launch an ambitious capital campaign just as people are climbing out of the pandemic, has got to be led by dreamers and fantasists.

Here, however, are recent numbers for Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina:

  • The college enrolls 1,600 students, the maximum that it can handle with current dorms and facilities;
  • Applications are increasing, not decreasing;
  • The Honors College at the school has 120 students after a record-breaking enrollment this year of nearly fifty freshmen;
  • It launched a capital campaign a year ago (“Made True”), aiming to reach $100 million at the end of three years—that goal has already nearly been met;
  • Since 2004, it has built or refurbished thirty buildings and facilities;
  • It runs twenty-eight athletic teams competing in the NCAA Division II;
  • Meanwhile, the college hosts a flourishing monastery and basilica on campus for students and visitors (the diocese of Charlotte now has forty-seven seminarians who received philosophy training at the college).

It’s a remarkable record in a troubling time. No hype needed to boost the case, only the numerical facts. Admissions officers at struggling religious colleges should consider the reasons.

This hasn’t happened because Belmont Abbey has followed secular trends and kept relevant, as consultants tend to advise religious schools to do. That wasn’t ever going to occur. The institution was, in fact, the very first one to challenge the Obamacare contraception mandate (its action was later folded into a class-action suit which included the Little Sisters of the Poor, who got more of the publicity in the ensuing course of things). While secular Americans berated the complainants for holding back progress and denying women “reproductive rights,” Belmont looks back on what it did ten years ago with open conviction. The leaders haven’t bent one bit to accommodate postmodern pressures. 

A few weeks ago, I sat down with President William K. Thierfelder in his office. He told me straight up: “We have every right to be in the public square.” In 2012 he testified before Congress on religious liberty, and had interesting tales of the conduct of Democrats in that session. He regularly travels to Washington, D.C., to run discussion meetings with Catholics on Capitol Hill, who find it a relief to talk about their shared faith before returning to workplaces that prohibit religious expression. When Thierfelder and his wife visited campus twenty years ago and entered the basilica, a “great peace” settled upon them and he took the job. Faith and reason, he says, lead one to God; seeking truth lands one in the Catholic Church (though the college welcomes students of different faiths). That’s the philosophy of education at the school. St. Benedict’s Rule is foregrounded in the mission statement, and the boundary between college and monastery is low and porous. 

I asked Abbot Placid Solari why the college is doing so well. His answer was a litany of ideals:

. . . a Benedictine education . . . orient the mind and heart toward what’s true . . . to save souls . . . understand the goal of life . . . appreciate ultimate ends . . . build a moral foundation . . . be ethical professionals . . . we are the oldest monastics . . . community for a flourishing life . . . 

I kept waiting to hear of success, achievement, twenty-first-century skills, workplace readiness, global citizenship, diversity, inclusion . . . and none of it came up. I asked about the readings in Belmont courses—the abbot sits on the board of the school and serves as chancellor—and he noted that students read Marx, Nietzsche, and other irreligious voices. I bet they learn the arguments better than kids do at UNC-Chapel Hill. An important part of the curriculum, the abbot insists, is modern challenges to Catholic belief as launched by the smartest intellects. A cloistered virtue is not the goal.

The abbot doesn’t want the college to grow too much more. President Thierfelder knows that it can’t, not until more building takes place, but that only allows the college to be more selective in admissions. It’s a nice position, to have greater demand for what you offer than what you can supply. If you are a Catholic school leader and you worry about the coming pressures, consider the example of Belmont Abbey.  

Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.

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Image by Rnrivas licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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