Requiem for Notre Dame College, at the Periphery of a Demographic Cliff

The coming decade is likely to be rough on Catholic higher education throughout the United States.

‘College Classroom’
‘College Classroom’ (photo: Andrea Colarieti / Shutterstock)

St. John’s University in New York, among the largest Catholic universities in the United States, announced Aug. 12 it will close its Staten Island campus at the end of the spring 2024 semester. The university claimed that collapsing enrollment on the Staten Island campus drove the decision.

St. John’s, founded by the Vincentian Fathers in 1870, operates three campuses in New York City. Its main campus is in Queens. Another campus is in Manhattan’s East Village. The Staten Island campus, occupying 16 acres atop Grymes Hill with a view of New York Harbor, became part of St. John’s in 1971.

The institution began as Notre Dame College in 1933, a small (first-year class of 13) women’s college initially affiliated with Fordham University. By the late 1960s, enrollment had plummeted and it was in danger of closing. Not wanting to lose a Catholic institution of higher education in the Archdiocese of New York, then-Cardinal Terence Cooke worked with the Vincentians of St. John’s Queens to take over the Staten Island institution in 1971. Independent Notre Dame College became the liberal arts school of St. John’s University on Staten Island. Later, business and general studies colleges were also added. 

The Board of Trustees of St. John’s decided Aug. 2 to phase out operations in Staten Island because of current and predicted enrollment trends. The campus served just over 2,000 students in the fall 2000 semester but, by fall 2021, enrollment had fallen to 861. Nationwide college attendance rates have also declined markedly since COVID-19, while enrollment in Staten Island’s Catholic high schools — traditional feeders to St. John’s — have been going down for years. 

Finally, the board cited population projects of a “demographic cliff” starting in 2025 as the result of a sharp and sustained implosion of birth rates from 2007 onward, missing children who would have made up the Class of 2029. That decrease will likely be felt by higher education across the board, with possible fatal consequences for smaller Catholic colleges and universities.

By continuing operations through May 2024, St. John’s hopes to allow current upperclassmen and graduate students to complete their programs while affording freshmen and sophomores time to identify institutions to which to transfer. Two other institutions — the College of Staten Island (a unit of the City University of New York) and originally Lutheran-sponsored Wagner College — are the two major universities on Staten Island, one of the five counties or “boroughs” of New York City with a population of just under half a million. The size of the Catholic population is high. Ethnic Italian-Americans make up at least a third of Staten Islanders, along with a significant portion of Hispanic-Americans, both traditionally Catholic groups. 

St. John’s University’s president, Dominican Father Brian Shanley, said the institution had made unsuccessful efforts over at least a decade to bolster enrollment and pledged to commit to scholarships to enable future Staten Islanders to study on the Queens campus. No announcement was made on the future of the Staten Island property, which was originally bequeathed to Notre Dame College in the 1930s by the Gans Family, which made its money in steamships.

After writing the impending “requiem”  of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan, the graduate school of my defunct undergraduate alma mater, St. Mary’s College, I feel sorrow at penning another obituary for an institution with which I was affiliated. After graduating from Fordham with a doctorate in theology, my first academic appointment was at Notre Dame College of St. John’s University on Staten Island, where I served from 1986-92. 

In my time, St. John’s Staten Island was a thriving school, in large part serving a population from both sides of the Verrazano Bridge — Staten Island and Brooklyn — that wanted a local Catholic higher education. The institution catered to working-class people, which I observed in two ways. First, many of my students took classes in mornings and early afternoons (how else to explain 50 students signing up for an 8am theology class?) because they were off to jobs by 1:30 or 2:30 at the latest. Second, a large late afternoon/evening enrollment let adult students study locally to complete undergraduate programs or pursue graduate degrees. (I have elsewhere lamented the decline of the Catholic college serving local and working class communities: see here). For students seeking a Catholic college degree, St. John’s costs were comparatively low. That was because faculty/student ratios were kept high (I always had 50 students per class times four classes, but never more than 206 students because, at 208, St. John’s would have had to pay a salary supplement), classes ran from 8am until 10pm, and the school provided no housing and a limited lunchroom, so they had only lecture halls to heat. I’ll not amplify on my salary. 

With its departure, St. John’s leaves one of New York’s very Catholic boroughs without Catholic higher education, a loss that Cardinal Cooke tried to avoid 50 years ago when he talked the Vincentians into taking over Notre Dame College. Without going into the merits of St. John’s decision, I can only observe the collective decline of the Catholic Church in the United States, where the institutional patrimony — parishes, parochial elementary and high schools, colleges and universities founded by immigrants and their first-generation children on nickels and dimes — is foundering at the hands of subsequent generations more affluent financially but poor in terms of their own children to enroll in those institutions. You can fire an employee, but when you shutter an institution — a church, a school, a university — know that you are practically leaving that place for the foreseeable future. Amid all our chatter about “synodality” and “being on the peripheries,” why are we not talking about a Church institutionally retrenching on its presence — and therefore its mission — in the United States today?

The coming decade is likely to be rough on Catholic higher education, but deferral of marriage and childbearing also exacts a price. That cost is likely be to exacerbated in the next generation — unless we resist — by corporate policies that pay for abortions while skimping on real support for maternal choice. Welcome to a brave, new — and ugly — world.