Demographic Trends, Financial Challenges Force Catholic College Closures

Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts has become one of 21 Catholic colleges across the country to shut its doors, merge with another institution, or announce plans to do so since 2016.

St. Mary Magdalene is the patron of the Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, which will close its doors at the end of the 2023-2034 academic year.
St. Mary Magdalene is the patron of the Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, which will close its doors at the end of the 2023-2034 academic year. (photo: Courtesy of Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts)

On May 11, more than a dozen graduates of the Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts will receive their diplomas, following in the tradition of others who have turned their tassels to the left, strolled out onto campus, and tossed their mortarboards into the crisp mountain air.

They will be the last class of Magdalen graduates.

Nearly 50 years after the school, heeding the call of Vatican II for laity to play a larger leadership role in the life of the Church, enrolled its first freshmen, Magdalen has become one of 21 Catholic colleges across the country to shut its doors, merge with another institution, or announce plans to do so since 2016, according to data from Higher Ed Dive analyzed by the Cardinal Newman Society.

Across the country, many smaller private colleges are succumbing to declines in student enrollment and the accompanying financial challenges that demographic shift has brought.

“Private colleges have been declining since 2010, and the COVID epidemic accelerated closings for colleges that were already in trouble. Now, America’s colleges face a ‘demographic cliff,’ caused by a sharp drop in the U.S. birth rate since 2008, which means fewer students attending fewer colleges,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the share of high-school graduates continuing on to college declined from 70% to 63% between 2016 and 2020. While COVID-19 might have caused enrollments to drop precipitously before slightly rebounding, the larger demographic reality looms: Fertility rates have crashed since the Great Recession, from a relative peak of 69.3 births per 1,000 U.S. women in 2007 to 56 in 2020, that translates to 4.3 million annual births versus 3.6 million in 2020, a difference of more than half a million, according to data from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Centers for Disease Control.

It’s not just that the population of college students is steadily shrinking; other factors, such as increasing skepticism towards the value of a college education and a desire to enter the workforce in what are, relatively speaking at least, good economic times, also have exerted downward pressure on college enrollments, analysts say.

“Catholic colleges and universities are not immune to the challenges facing higher education, in general, and the number of closings reflects that — no more, no less,” said Donna Carroll, the executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “The fact that so many of our Catholic colleges and universities are small by design is both a strength and a vulnerability; it often equates with tight margins,” Carroll added.

A press release from Notre Dame College in Ohio issued late in February sums up the headwinds facing many of these colleges, both Catholic and otherwise: “Like many small higher education institutions across the country, NDC has faced long-standing challenges related to declining enrollment, a shrinking pool of college-aged students, rising costs and significant debt. These challenges were the impetus for the Board of Trustees’ decision to create new pathways for students to continue their education at partner institutions.”

For Magdalen, both deficits and debt led to what the school also described as “financial challenges,” as the school’s official announcement of its closing last fall put it. “Such challenges included annual deficits that were unsustainable as well as a multi-million-dollar loan taken out by the previous administration,” the college’s president, Ryan Messmore, told the Register in an email.

“This decision was disappointing, for we had finally gotten things going in a positive direction: Freshmen enrollment was up, revenue per student was up, the tuition discount had improved, and we had just completed a successful $2-million campaign. We just needed more time to allow this momentum to grow, but the large loan came due this year,” Messmore added.

While debt appears to be a common factor, individual circumstances under which it becomes a problem vary. In Kentucky, St. Catharine College fell into dire financial straits after the U.S. Department of Education put the school under a form of oversight known as “heightened cash monitoring” and withheld student aid for some new academic programs, falsely claiming its approval was needed for those programs, according to The Washington Post.

Besides the loss of federal revenues, the college blamed the dispute for causing enrollment to plummet from 600 full-time students to 475, adding to the financial strain, just as debt payments were coming due for a series of new buildings, including residence halls, a health-sciences building and a state-of-the-art library, according to a press release.

St. Catharine sued the Department of Education, which admitted its mistake and promised repayment, but declined to repay all at once, as the college had asked, leading to its closure in July 2016, according to The Washington Post report on the controversy published the month before, which noted that “small private colleges rarely face the level of financial scrutiny this school endured.”

Magdalen College stands out as one of the few faithfully Catholic colleges to close, according to Reilly. “But, overall, we’ve seen record enrollments at Newman Guide colleges, and the trend seems to be very favorable to colleges that give Catholic families something to be excited about. On the other hand, most of the closures are once-vibrantly Catholic, regional colleges that today offer little that can’t be found at a cheaper state university or community colleges. Lukewarm Catholic colleges don’t appeal to faithful Catholics any more than they appeal to the ‘nones,’” Reilly said. The Register’s annual “Catholic Identity College Guide” includes the faithful colleges featured in the Newman Guide to Catholic colleges; Magdalen has long been included.

Of the 21 Catholic colleges that have closed, merged or are planning to, seven are in the Northeast. In addition to Magdalen, they include: St. Vincent’s College in Connecticut; The College of Saint Rose, St. John’s University’s Staten Island campus and College of New Rochelle in New York; Cabrini University in Pennsylvania; and the College of St. Joseph in Vermont.

Most of the rest are in the Midwest, with others scattered across the country.

Besides fidelity to Catholic teaching, the colleges in the Northeast face an additional demographic challenge, Carroll noted: Most U.S. population growth is in the South and West. As one analyst bleakly puts it, “Starved of students and the tuition revenue they bring, small private colleges in New England have begun to blink off the map.”

Such general population trends are coinciding with shifts within U.S. Catholicism, as well, where most of the growth is now occurring in the South, while traditional strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest are waning, according to data from the 2020 U.S. Religion Census.

Most colleges that cease operations appear to reach “teach-out” agreements with other institutions, allowing students who are not graduating to receive credit for classes already completed and continue their studies elsewhere.

Meanwhile, despite pressure to cut its budget, Messmore said he had promised students that in this final semester “they would experience the same educational and student-life opportunities as usual.” Despite being the last commencement, Messmore said “the students have leaned into these events and traditions with positivity.”

That spirit is on display in the college’s Facebook feed for this semester, showcasing a ski trip, an Irish pub-themed dinner hosted by one class, student athletic feats and liturgical events, among others — focusing on the college’s legacy rather than the finality of it all, with the 50th anniversary hashtag under each post.

“At a time when many colleges and universities are going woke, becoming morally compromised, and failing to form students deeply in truth, goodness and beauty, it is sad to see a faithful Catholic college like Magdalen close,” said Messmore. “I pray that the Lord will continue to bless and provide for all of the students, alumni and employees who have benefited from their time at this special college.”