The presidents of the flagship Catholic, Jewish and Latter-day Saints universities gathered with leaders of other faith-based schools Thursday in Washington, D.C., for a summit on religious identity in education.

They wanted both to fortify each other and to share the secret sauce behind innovations making them the degrees they offer more accessible, more affordable and more completable. Those successes may be spurred by religious motivations or practices, but many still apply to public colleges and universities, higher education experts said.

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“I think it’s very important for institutions that have a mission from the spectrum of religious traditions to gather and to talk about what that dimension of faith-based vision adds to the educational enterprise,” said the Rev. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, “both so they can learn from one another and advance the common efforts, but also so that the world can better understand what we do and the value we bring to higher education in America.”

Faith-based schools make up more than 900 of the nation’s approximately 4,000 colleges and universities, said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), which convened the group in its building on Dupont Circle, a mile from the White House.

ACE is not a faith-based organization.

Jeff Selingo, left, Elder Clark Gilbert and Shirley Hoogstra participate in a summit on religious higher education.
Elder Clark Gilbert, church commissioner of education for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center, makes comments as author and former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education Jeff Selingo, left, and Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, participate during a forum focusing on the fate of the religious university at the offices of The American Council on Education in Washington D.C., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. | Brian Nicholson, for the Deseret News

“You all represent a super significant part of American higher education,” Mitchell said, “and we need to figure out ways to take the work that you do and make it as important in the national dialogue as (your numbers reflect).”

The university presidents shared solutions their faith-based schools have found for higher education’s vexing problems of access, affordability and completion.

“The inquiry is partly for people we hope will understand why religious identity matters, but it’s also for people who do understand it and need greater conviction,” said Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a former Harvard Business School professor and president of BYU-Idaho and BYU-Pathway Worldwide. He now serves as the commissioner of the Church Educational System for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For example, two presidents shared the schools’ practical work programs and initiatives that allow first-generation students to work their way through college when they otherwise could not afford it.

The presidents from Notre Dame, BYU and Yeshiva University shared how their schools are making impacts for social good.

Eboo Patel’s three suggestions for faith-based colleges and universities

Eboo Patel, the president of Interfaith America, helped kick off the summit by encouraging the presidents to maintain their schools’ religious identities. He said their uniqueness is needed in an American society where identity communities increasingly stick to institutions that serve only their identities.

“There is no diversity without particularity,” said Patel. “There is no diversity without your particularity.”

He also issued three suggestions to help presidents maintain their schools’ religious identities without being insular.

  • First, be clear and explicit about their schools’ theology of interfaith cooperation so that students understand why their religious-based school includes other faith students on campus or works with schools of other faiths.
  • Second, have a concrete program enacting that interfaith cooperation, such as Catholic schools like Georgetown and DePaul hiring imams or BYU’s regular conference on Muslim-Latter-day Saint relations, so schools can show their students and the world how they positively relate to people of other religions and cooperate with them for good.
  • And third, share what they are doing so they are models of healthy society.

“America is in a place right now where people think that, ‘For me to be me, I need to extinguish you,’” Patel said. “But you prove every day that there is a different way.”

Employment programs for low-income students

A common theological underpinning emerged about what Brad Johnson, president of the College of the Ozarks, called “the belief in the dignity of the human being and the need to help the least of these.”

“We believe every person on earth deserves a chance to magnify their talents,” added Keoni Kauwe, president of BYU-Hawaii.

Johnson and Kauwe oversee unique work programs making it possible for first-generation students to access and afford higher education.

College of the Ozarks, which maintains a Presbyterian tradition, dubs itself Hard Work U. because of the work program involving all 1,500 students on the campus in Point Lookout, Missouri.

“At College of the Ozarks, students don’t pay tuition,” Johnson said. “They never see a tuition bill. Rather, students work 15 hours a week and two, 40-hour work weeks throughout the academic year.”

Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith America, poses a question during a forum focusing on the fate of the religious university.
Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith America, poses a question during a forum focusing on the fate of the religious university at the offices of The American Council on Education in Washington D.C., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. | Brian Nicholson, for the Deseret News

While 80% to 90% of students demonstrate financial need, the college’s retention rate is at 80%, far above the national average.

BYU-Hawaii offers a work-study program called IWORK to help students from Oceania and the Asian Rim afford an American higher education. Students work 19 hours a week during school and 40 hours a week during breaks and receive housing, food, tuition and fees and a stipend. The program funds about half of students, Kauwe said, with a goal to reach two-thirds of students.

Also, 800 students work at the Polynesian Cultural Center, which Kauwe said is Hawaii’s most visited and most culturally authentic tourist attraction.

BYU-Hawaii serves 3,000 students from 60 countries, 62% of whom are low-income students. While students in the IWORK program are from what Kauwe said are backgrounds correlated with poor outcomes, their GPAs and graduation rates are the same as students without financial need.

“One of the things that struck me as it came through in several presentations is the importance of a mission that sees each and every student as possessing a particular dignity and engaging them at the level of a personal call to be something worthwhile,” the Rev. Jenkins said. “That’s a kind of theological framework, but that’s a very powerful educational attitude to have, as you can see in the graduation rates, as you can see in the great work with low-income students. That’s true of us and I think it’s true of these other institutions.”

Kim Lee, Keoni Kauwe and Brad Johnson join a forum on the fate of the religious university.
From left, Kim Lee, of the American Council on Education listens as Keoni Kauwe, president of Brigham Young University-Hawaii, speaks during a forum focusing on the fate of the religious university at the offices of The American Council on Education in Washington D.C., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. Brad Johnson, president of College of the Ozarks listens at right. | Brian Nicholson, for the Deseret News

What else are faith-based schools doing well?

While the presentations included information about the faith-based motivations of sponsoring churches, of university leadership and of faculty and students, former University of Utah President Ruth Watkins, now the president of the education networking company, Strada Impact, said she wished she’d attended a summit like Thursday’s before she left the state school.

“All of it was relevant to public institutions. All of it,” she said.

Ruth Watkins, president of Strada Impact, conducts a discussion during a forum on the fate of the religious university.
Ruth Watkins, president of Strada Impact, conducts a discussion during a forum focusing on the fate of the religious university at the offices of The American Council on Education in Washington D.C., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. | Brian Nicholson, for the Deseret News

Moderators for the summit’s panels were from groups unrelated to faith, and the event was covered by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and Higher Ed Dive.

Still, presenters talked about faith motivations.

“There’s an imperative to be creative. God is the great Creator,” said Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. “We believe it’s possible to create something new from something old.”

That innovation can impact affordability. Students at CCCU’s 185 schools pay 25% less tuition on average than students at other four-year, private nonprofit schools, Hoogstra said.

Elder Gilbert said BYU-Idaho’s enrollment tripled from 2000 to 2020, but operating costs grew below inflation because of innovations designed to make it affordable both for students and the sponsoring Church of Jesus Christ. The church spends about $1 billion a year to support higher education, Elder Gilbert said, citing a statement made last year by Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

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“Variable tuition at BYU-Idaho exceeds variable costs, so the bigger you get the less it costs to run the institution,” said Elder Gilbert, who is also a General Authority Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder Gilbert is the past president of both BYU-Idaho and BYU-Pathway Worldwide, a unique, low-cost program that now provides 60,000 students in 180 countries an affordable on-ramp to higher education and into the online programs at BYU-Idaho.

Yeshiva University now is working to build out its own Pathway-style program.

The Rev. Jenkins of Notre Dame, Yeshiva President and Rabbi Ari Berman and BYU President Kevin Worthen described ways their schools provide social good, from efforts to reduce homelessness, poverty and recidivism to helping develop solutions to hunger and providing students with unusual opportunities to do research.

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A reasonable proposition

Hoogstra had said that enrollment, which is falling at many colleges and universities, is rising at many faith-based schools. President Rochelle Ford of Dillard College, a historically Black college in Louisiana, said that despite the decrease in specific church affiliation among college-age Americans, they remain spiritually inclined.

They are looking for meaning, belonging and connection, several presidents said.

“I would say the crisis of our generation is a crisis of meaning,” Rabbi Berman said. “Our students are looking for meaning and you don’t have that often in a (broader) society where many have turned their back on these generations of tradition. What we’ve found is that our students are seeking meaning and purpose.”

One way to find meaning and purpose is through religion and service, the presidents said.

Peter Kilpatrick, president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said that students who don’t engage in any of the university’s campus ministries graduate about seven or eight percentage points below average.

“Students who engage in five or more of our campus activities graduate or persist at a rate 15 points higher,” he said, “and 92% of our students persist if they get engaged (in ministry).”

Patel told the Deseret News the summit was “a big deal.”

“I think it highlights a dimension of American democracy that too many people take for granted, which is that institutions founded by particular faith communities serve people of all faith communities in some way, shape or form. You cannot have a diverse democracy, unless you have civic institutions that are able to express a particular identity and build positive relationships across diverse communities.”