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There's No Fix for the Student Loan Debacle

From Public Discourse

Photo by No Revisions / Unsplash

But you can try to avoid it by going lean with a great books college?

But there is an alternative path. Some mission-oriented institutions have managed to keep the government out of their affairs by refusing federal financial aid altogether. These schools offer a workable solution to both sides of the debt crisis: simultaneously affordable and free of government intrusion.

Notably, they happen to share a commitment not only to affordability and intellectual independence from the federal government, but also to texts and ideas that have endured. This shared pedagogical focus on “Great Books” is no accident: a need to get back to the basics of education forces educators to take stock of what really ought to be taught rather than what is trending in the latest issues of academic journals. It is the real-world implementation of the old ice-breaker, “What books would you have on a desert island?” These schools answer: only the best and most important.

Of these schools, Hillsdale College is the wealthiest and most prominent, although most of them are neither wealthy nor prominent. They cannot charge as much as their federally funded counterparts, because their students cannot access the easy credit of federal student loans. As a consequence, they employ comparatively tiny administrative staffs, they serve small student bodies, and their campuses are streamlined. Some, such as Thomas Aquinas College (founded in Santa Paula, California, in 1971) and Christendom College (Front Royal, Virginia, 1977), have been around for half a century. But the movement skews young: New St. Andrews College (Moscow, Idaho, 1994), Wyoming Catholic College (Lander, 2005), New College Franklin (Franklin, Tennessee, 2009), St. Constantine College (Houston, 2016), and Sattler College (Boston, 2018).

There is good reason to predict this movement will flourish for the foreseeable future, as the gap in America between popular and traditional cultures widens. More and more families will seek out the affordable and pedagogically time-tested education these institutions have to offer. This demand will inspire others to establish similar institutions. For example, Hildegard College in Costa Mesa, California (at which I am a Visiting Professor) will welcome its first freshman class in Fall 2023, offering just one academic program: a Great Books major with a minor in Economics and Entrepreneurship.

My hope is that these lean and visionary start-ups will inspire established mission-committed colleges and universities to make the hard cuts necessary to preserve and enhance the liberal arts and (where applicable) religious identity, shrinking in size—as they will be forced to do anyway—but more fully realizing their mission.

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