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Higher education has become infatuated with “sustainability,” even as it has become increasingly unsustainable. It is time for a new approach to the higher education model.

Hang around in academia for a little while, and you’ll soon see buzzwords making their way through its halls.

Take “sustainability,” for instance. Over the past few decades, American universities have sought to respond to (or, one might say, “monetize”) growing environmental concern with a slew of academic and administrative programming.

Now virtually any university worth its salt has an Office of Sustainability. The one at Harvard, for example, pledges “to advance solutions to evolving global health and environmental challenges that benefit the common good by translating research into practice and empowering people to be stewards for the future.” Across the continent at UCLA, the Sustainability Committee “foster[s] cross-cutting collaborations” and “creat[es] synergies” for engagement, “infus[es] sustainability into core academic and educational programs,” and “integrat[es] sustainable practices into campus operations.”

As of 2019, one could major in “Sustainability Studies” at approximately 100 colleges around the country. Clemson University boasts two Endowed Chairs for Sustainability, and in 2018 the University of Wisconsin-Madison appointed the nation’s first Director of Sustainability, a plum administrative position with a salary pushing six figures.

The irony here is that as universities have righteously funneled resources into the study of sustainability, they have been practicing a business model that is profoundly unsustainable.

For the past forty years, that model has run something like this: 1) hike tuition, 2) expand administration and student services, and 3) build fancier facilities, in order to 4) justify further hikes in tuition. That’s how you reach a point where the price of college is increasing at eight times the rate of wages, with students shouldering an average cost of $30,000 per year (more than twice that at many private schools) and accruing upwards of $2 trillion in student debt in the process.

This model of perpetually escalating costs has been sustained by increasing demand—both in the domestic population and, crucially, among international students willing to pay sticker price to attend college in the U.S. It has not led to higher quality education. Quite the opposite, in fact. Universities have outsourced the actual business of teaching to a contingent labor force of part-time and adjunct instructors, loosened academic standards, and generally invested very little in what actually takes place in the classroom.

In short, the higher education model regnant in the United States today looks less like a sustainable 21st century ecosystem and more like the subprime mortgage-backed securities market around 2007—a lousy product kept afloat by continual expansion.

But all good Ponzi schemes must come to an end, even in the hallowed halls of higher ed. Enrollment numbers have stagnated or declined since 2011, leading many colleges on the margins to declare bankruptcy or merge with larger ones.

But while many have predicted that the higher education bubble will soon burst, the COVID-19 disaster is bringing the chickens home to roost at a rate no one could have anticipated. A brief snapshot:

With colleges shuttered, revenues reduced, endowment investments plunging, and the added struggle of shifting from physical to virtual education, Moody’s has downgraded the entire sector to negative from stable. The American Council on Education believes revenues in higher education will decline by $23 billion over the next academic year. In one survey this week, 57 percent of university presidents said they planned to lay off staff. Half said they would merge or eliminate some programs, while 64 percent said that long-term financial viability was their most pressing issue.

Certainly, both the short- and long-term fallout of COVID-19 are unclear, but many are bracing for the worst. Polls show that up to one-third of all students will not enroll in the event that classes this fall are online-only. Others predict that the university system will rapidly merge under the auspices of a few mega-universities. The Financial Times article concludes that “It’s very likely we are about to see the hollowing out of America’s university system.”

But, one might add, that “hollowing out” has been going on for decades, as colleges have transformed from institutions of higher learning to corporations offering a range of boutique lifestyle and psycho-therapeutic services, administered by a small army of bureaucrats and sustained by financiers, athletics, and luxury accommodations.

Seen in that light, it’s slightly easier to understand how a half-semester disruption in the non-academic components of colleges represents a cataclysmic loss. So what if students were still on the hook for tuition, and instructors for teaching? Education hasn’t really been the product for quite some time.

All this is to say, perhaps now is not the time for handwringing over the catastrophe. Perhaps a systemic correction has been long overdue, and should be welcomed by all those who await the day when American colleges and universities return to their fundamental vocation of giving students a real education in the skills and knowledge necessary for a career and for life.

What would that brighter future look like? There is surely more than one answer to that question.

But for me, the answer is the project I’ve been working on for years—a four-year college with a sustainable business model.

Its name is Collegium sanctorum angelorum (The Collegium). Located in Hagerstown, MD, The Collegium model integrates a low-cost infrastructure with tuition, auxiliary businesses, corporate work-study, and some philanthropy.

For The Collegium, there is virtually no capital expenditures needed. The facilities are leased as part of an urban revitalization project in downtown Hagerstown. There are no maintenance or repair costs to face. We are using existing infrastructure that the town already has in order to operate the lowest overhead higher education model that I’ve ever witnessed. We’ve also established a corporate work-study program model that allows students the ability to take part in cost of tuition. Philanthropy is still a part of the model, but its vastly lower than what other four-year colleges need to subsidize the cost of tuition.

In a strange way, Covid-19 has illuminated the need for a revolutionary school like this and we happen to be uniquely positioned to respond to this need. The Collegium is up to the challenge facing higher education. We look forward to taking on this new model of affordable, classical, four-year education that works for the needs of students, their families, and the community.

If you'd like to learn more about how the Collegium is transforming Catholic higher education, feel free to send me an email—or you can join our livestream online event next Tuesday, September 8 at 7 pm. You can RSVP to the event here: https://www.the-collegium.org/news

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