Did you ever wonder why tuition at most Catholic universities has skyrocketed since you went there decades ago? Did you ever wonder why the tuition at these schools climbed way higher than the inflation rate? Well, the game is up; and here is the story.

Somewhere in the mid-1960s when I was an undergraduate in a non-Jesuit Catholic college, the Jesuits had a meeting, the report of which I have read, where they were trying, for good reason, to increase the prestige of their universities. Since the schools were still Catholic at the time of this conference, they were interested in getting more people to go to Jesuit universities to increase the influence of Catholicism. Prior to this time, many, if not most, Jesuit scholars, after their long period of philosophical and theological training, got their doctorates at the Gregorian University in Rome. The Gregorianum, as it is called, was founded by St. Ignatius Loyola himself, and originally called the Roman College. Those getting their doctorates there have gone to an excellent school. The problem with it is that, in the mind of these Jesuits, it is Catholic. There is a prejudice against Catholic education in snooty circles, so the decision was made to send their budding academics to secular universities for the Ph.D. The thinking was that even though these people were Jesuit priests, the fact that they had a Harvard, Yale, University of Chicago, etc., degree would give them, and their universities, recognition in the secular world, yet they would still be Catholic. But this view was very naïve. Since doctorates from Catholic universities in the United States as well as in Europe are generally just as good (if not better—don’t get me started), in my opinion, as the Ivy League’s doctorates, this tells you that the problem is actually that the educational establishment just hates Catholic anything. So starting in the late 1960s you saw more and more priests with doctorates, even sometimes in theology, from big-name secular schools. This was not only true of Jesuits now but of other orders as well. This, however, is only the beginning of the story.

The next chapter of the tale occurred in 1967 when a number of Catholic university officials met and issued the “Land O’Lakes Statement.” Signers included authorities from many Jesuit universities, Seton Hall University, and the Catholic University of America. Thankfully, my undergraduate institution was NOT one of the signers, but my Jesuit doctoral university was, and by the priest-president, who, one year later, left the priesthood. (See http://consortium.villanova.edu/excorde/landlake.htm.) This statement basically relegated Catholicism to the “campus ministry” department, and theology to a study of the “depths of the Christian tradition” and “the total religious heritage of the world.” In other words, Catholicism will no longer be the center of the Catholic university, but will be treated similarly as it is treated in secular universities.

But what about the tuition, our original subject? Well, at the same time as all this was going on, priestly vocations were going down. Since the universities had decided that only big-name doctorates were to be hired, they had to hire laypeople with these degrees. In order to do so, the Catholic schools had to compete with the non-Catholic universities, so that the pay had to be comparable.  But how do they pay for this? And how do they pay for an increase in the number of fields available to study, not to mentions labs, etc., staffed by these faculty members now getting greater pay? Here is where the government stepped in. The government, beginning mostly in the Johnson administration in the mid to late 1960s, began a process of increasing the Federal government’s contribution to student financial aid in terms of scholarships, loans, and grants. At first glance, one automatically says, “Isn’t that great, now poorer folks can afford college.” But this had many effects, including one interesting economic one. The big boost in Federal student financial aid became an enabler for these now-liberalized Catholic universities to get more money for themselves. The key was this, and it took a while to actually realize it. What the schools did was raise tuition to great heights. The rich people can pay it anyway with just a check; the poorer ones can just get financial aid. Everybody wins. Now those interested in attending one of the now more secularly prestigious Catholic-named institutions can go even if they could not afford it in the past. One proof of this is the sudden building of a Taj Mahal–like student center at a university at which I used to do research in the 1980s and 1990s. This student center has marbled floors and a hotel attached to it. The reason for this is obvious—competition for students. Students will be attracted by the spectacular.

The last stage of the process is the changing of the Board of Trustees. This occurred early in the game, and the argument was made that since Vatican II gave the laity more responsibilities in the Church, so it should be on college boards. But there were always laypeople on the boards of Catholic universities. So, where is the problem? Now, on most, if not all, colleges run by religious orders, the laypeople are in the majority, usually the vast majority. The order no longer controls its own school. Oh, there is usually a provision that the president has to be a member of the founding order, but he is now a functionary of the board. But, you might object, there are plenty of laymen out there who would have the heart of the institution in mind, so they would make good board members. That is true, but is that why these laypeople are chosen? I argue that it is not. The real reason is their ability to raise money—purely and simply. After all, if the schools are going to hire laymen with big-name university degrees, and build fancy student centers and labs, etc., they have to raise more and more money, since tuition, even with government funding, does not cover probably even half of the expenses. The universities will generally not ask those who are hostile to the university in question to join the board, but the rationale of these board members is not quite the same as that of the original founding order when it was founded.

The ultimate outcome of this whole thing is that many—not all, thank God—Catholic schools have abandoned the faith in reality, while maintaining a veneer of it, to become a business, and while there is nothing wrong with business in itself, there is something wrong with this particular business, the Catholic university, built with the money of devout Catholics and the sacrifices of religious, in some cases since the late 1700s, abandoning their raison d’etre. This explains an awful lot of incidents, such as Cardinal Arinze being treated as if he was the bearer of the plague by a large group of Georgetown University faculty, or Georgetown’s covering up of the Jesuit IHS part of the school’s emblem when President Obama spoke there, the showing of obscene plays on the campus with the authorities powerless to stop it, and lastly, President Obama receiving an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame. Oh, by the way, both of these schools signed the Land O’Lakes Statement.