Proud Loras College student discussing research project with Loras President Jim Collins ('84) at the Legacy Symposium in spring

The Enduring Value of Private, Faith-Based Higher Education

By James E. Collins (’84) for the Telegraph Herald, June 30, 2024

One does not have to work hard to find a lot of sad, maddening, and heartbreaking happenings in these polarizing times. There continues to be an ongoing distrust toward government, religion, corporations, media, intercollegiate/professional athletics, and increasingly, higher education. While scandal, dishonesty, immorality, and greed exist within these industries/entities, there are good and meritorious people and institutions within each of these sectors.

Since the founding of our great nation, higher education has played a pivotal role in shaping and advancing our country and world. In the early decades, amazing scholars taught what most would have recognized as foundational learning through the introduction of a variety of disciplinary topics, which grew to what most would appreciate as a traditional liberal arts education.

Higher education grew and peaked in distinction from the 1950s through the early 2000s. Research and scholarship significantly advanced during these decades, and colleges and universities experienced aggregate enrollment growth year-over-year throughout this period. The student enrollment shift from private colleges to public universities was among the more interesting changes. In the early 1960s, sixty percent of all students enrolled in a college or university attended a private institution. Today, less than twenty percent of all students attend a private college or university.

As American citizens, we are blessed to have several strong, quality options when it comes to higher education: public two- and four-year institutions; two-year trade, vocational, technical, and community colleges; and private two-year and four-year institutions. There is no doubt that some are better than others. Further, there are some that have “lost their way” by failing public trust and/or in wandering away from their mission and values.

In my humble opinion, the Dubuque area community is fortunate to have several good higher education institutions, each of which falls into one of the many categories noted above. Most of the area colleges and universities are private, faith-based institutions. Worth noting, our country’s first institutions were private and faith-based. Unfortunately, I think many of those institutions have jettisoned the faith dimension that once served as a cornerstone.

At Loras, we are proud of our status as Iowa’s first college and the nation’s seventh-oldest Catholic college. We embrace our longstanding mission and continue to enhance our strong academic offerings while incorporating the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Catholic Social Teaching into our work. It was St. Thomas Aquinas who first reconciled the notion of “faith and reason.” St. John Paul II famously stated, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth, and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth — in a word, to know himself — so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

As I reflect on all the challenges our country, society, and world are experiencing, I am worried, depressed, frustrated, and overwhelmed. However, as I engage with our students, I am filled with hope. They take seriously the reconciliation of faith and reason. They can have a civil conversation, listen well to various points of view, demonstrate empathy, and further embrace their values. They desire to do good for others — in all ways, especially in the communities where they will live and work.

Perhaps the best way to reassert the import of private, faith-based higher education is to substantively return to the revered notion of “faith and reason.”

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