Loyola University Chicago

Office of the President


First Friday Club Lunch

At the event, Jo Ann Rooney, JD, LLM, EdD, addressed the topic "Is there a changing Catholic identity in Catholic universities today?"

February 3, 2017

Thank you, Rich, for your warm introduction. My thanks as well to Father John Cusick and Dr. Brian Schmisek, Director of Loyola’s Institute for Pastoral Studies, for the invitation to join you all this afternoon.

For my talk today, I was at first asked to address the topic “Is a Catholic college education outdated in modern society?” I had prepared an extraordinarily short set of remarks that said: No, such an education is certainly not outdated and is arguably more relevant now than ever before. Thank you.

The revised title of my remarks, “Where is the value of higher education in these changing times?” is a question that deserves a more detailed response and is vital to a myriad of discussions today by students and parents as well as communities and policy makers. It is important to note that the very wording of this question—which was posed to me-- belies a change in how we think about education, and specifically, higher education. For as long as most of us remember, there has been a universally-accepted belief in the inherent value of higher education- of a college degree. This belief culminated in the founding of the land grant universities in the midst of the Civil War; produced the G.I. Bill after World War II; and created Pell Grants through the Higher Education Act of 1965 during the Civil Rights movement. In the last 10 to 15 years, however, this unquestioned belief in the value and purpose of post-secondary education has been replaced with skepticism and rising criticism. It is manifest culturally and at both the federal and state levels by the question “Where is the value?” Are students learning? What are they learning and can they get a job? Are Universities being good citizens, contributing to and providing our communities with needed services and able to bridge the divide between academic inquiry and positive change to society be it in health care, business, education, sustainability or other areas? These questions presuppose that the value is diminished, or indeed, may be missing altogether. It is a question that all of us in higher education are being asked by students, parents, corporations, foundations and other prospective donors, and most vocally, by our elected officials. If you will allow me, I will start by sharing some thoughts on the very real challenges facing higher education that are the backdrop to this question about the value proposition.

Starting about 15 years ago, Members of Congress and the general public began to express concerns regarding the rising cost of higher education, escalating tuitions, the return on investment in financial aid programs like the Pell Grants and Work-Study, and increases in student loan debt. These concerns have led government and state entities, as well as individual students and families, to question if a college education is, in fact, worth the financial investment.

At any institution, whether public, private, or 4 year or community college, the single greatest cost is salary and benefits. At Loyola, our second largest cost is our own institutional financial aid which makes up approximately 20% of our budget. We provide more than $130 million in university sourced financial assistance to our students every year, and we work closely with students to help them access the maximum amount in federal aid and state aid. 

In my university inauguration remarks last November, I underscored the urgency to address the financial challenges facing Loyola and all institutions of higher education. I told our community that we cannot continue to rely on raising tuition rates as the principal source of funding our increases in expenses. As I said then, “This business model, along with the use of tuition discounting, is being attacked by those who have historically been strong supporters of higher education. Whether our students are being prepared to succeed in the global real world, student loan amounts that are strangling new graduates, access to education being limited to those who can afford it, a culture of tradition refusing to innovate…fairly or unfairly, deserved or inaccurate, these types of criticisms are facing us every day and need to serve as a wake-up call to all of us.” Higher education is a labor-intensive service industry that relies upon engaging talented faculty and researchers to provide a world-class education. In the new reality of the 21st century, higher education also provides students with counseling services related to academics, financial aid, financial literacy, career development, health and wellness, safety and security, and much more. These types of counseling and support services are vitally important to student success and to helping students succeed and persist through to graduation. For those of us at Loyola and many other institutions, that is our primary goal --student success and graduation. So therein lies the tension. How can we address the concerns about expenses and broaden access while at the same time deliver an excellent education and prepare students not only for their future careers and but also to be engaged citizens and in our case, engaged citizens in the service of others? How can we balance the requirements of careful fiscal stewardship with our mandate at Loyola to change the world?

I recently read a Chronicle of Higher Education article written by Jeffrey Selingo which concluded with this observation: “American higher-education institutions are under enormous strain.” That seems like an understatement. But there are a few ways to react and we are witnessing all of them. Denial, intransigence, reactionary budget cuts with short term results and long term implications and finally strategic evaluation coupled with change and innovation. So where are we? 

At Loyola, beginning late this fall with a process that will last for the next 9-12 months, we launched a comprehensive review of our operational and fiscal priorities to ensure alignment with our mission, strategic plan and desired, measurable outcomes across every aspect of the university. Our multi-year financial planning and modeling will produce three-year rolling budgets clearly tying our outcome metrics with our resource allocation and prioritization. Unlike many colleges and universities, we are very fortunate to be fiscally healthy enabling us to both plan and have the flexibility to modify our business model. This is all about preparing for a future where adaptability and change leadership will be imperative.

But, getting an organization to move away from “we have always done it this way” to embracing the “different”, where balancing tradition and innovation is the foundation for the education we provide, where our mission goes far beyond the classroom in our service to others is hard and is a long term process. So why now, why this sense of urgency? If we do not chart our own destiny, the course will be set for us. There is an ever-increasing threat of legislation and regulation to address many of these issues. But these often result in piecemeal changes that often lead to unintended consequences. While I never like to say “I told you so”, more than 10 years ago, I cautioned my other university colleagues that we only needed to look to the health care industry to understand our own trajectory if we refused to listen to the concerns and change the way we conducted ourselves. Frankly, if we fail to innovate and acknowledge the evolving role of our educational institutions we will be forced to adapt in a reactionary rather than strategic way through years of incremental, legislated change. I just got back after spending the last week in DC and was able to participate in various small meetings in an attempt to understand the priorities and processes that we can expect in the months ahead. A number of those conversations centered around understanding the focus of discussions taking place in the Congress regarding the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. There is a well-founded sense of heightened concerns about the current system of student financial aid- it is too complex for students and their families to understand and to navigate, higher education institutions are not being held accountable for ensuring students graduate and get jobs, and student loan debt is strangling the new workforce. These concerns are valid and not new. However, one proposal which is especially concerning to many of us relates to combining all loan programs into a single loan and a single grant program. On the surface, this seems to address the very issues I just mentioned. However as currently designed, it is very likely that the total amount of federal support would be reduced which would impact the most financially vulnerable of our students and exacerbate the challenges of enhancing access to education or making affordability the very barrier it was designed to remove Further, this proposal does not appear to take into account campus-based programs which are specifically designed to address the changing financial aid needs and circumstances of individual students – again targeting our most financially vulnerable students. 

The pressure on higher education institutions to justify the value proposition of a college degree is playing out most publically, perhaps, in the “tuition-free” movement that Bernie Sanders began during the 2016 presidential election which has recently by embraced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Governor’s Cuomo’s “Excelsior Scholarship” would ensure free tuition at New York’s public two and four-year institutions to students whose families make up to $125,000 per year. The focus of this program and other such proposals is to make higher education free to students and their parents. Governor Cuomo’s office estimates that the program would cost about $163 million annually once it is fully phased in. It remains to be seen if this proposal is truly financially viable and if it would have the intended outcomes of increased and debt-free college matriculation—and perhaps even more importantly—higher graduation rates and employment.

So is anyone trying something new? Yes. Where is the innovation? One impactful, innovative way that we at Loyola have sought to address the very real and significant financial challenges and access challenges for students who endeavor to earn a college degree is through the creation of our Arrupe College program. Currently in its 2nd year, Arrupe College, named for Father Pedro Arrupe, a well-known and much-beloved former superior general of the Jesuits, serves students in the Chicago metropolitan area who have little or no ability to contribute financially to their college education, are typically the first in their family to attend college and for many reasons may face challenges that would normally impede their ability to finish a degree. This program, enrolling talented and motivated high-need and diverse students, enables these students to graduate with an associate's degree in two years with little to no debt. 97% of the students in Arrupe College are students of color and over 80% of these students are eligible for Pell grants which are Federal grants directed to the neediest students in our country along with MAP- the funding provided through the Illinois Monetary Assistance Program. So why not 100% Pell and MAP eligibility? Over 60 of the College’s 318 students are DACA students – young people who came to this country as children, who consider this to be home but do not have legal citizenship, but who also participated in and registered to be here through the program initiated during the previous presidential administration. Once receiving the associate's degree, these Arrupe College students can enter the workforce or transfer all 60 credits to four-year institutions to complete a major and earn a bachelor's degree. The program is new but to date has been extraordinarily successful in matriculating students from throughout the Chicago area and maintaining retention rates in excess of 80%.

I could continue well past dinnertime tonight discussing the divergent challenges facing all of us in higher education as well as the innovative programs that are being developed to take these challenges and turn them into opportunities. The list is long and the solutions are not simple or easy. But the underlying question remains: Where is the value in higher education today? 

I suspect that many people in this room would agree with the research that shows that on a practical level, a college education remains an excellent investment for students. College graduates average roughly $1 million more in earnings over a lifetime than students with a high school GED, and the unemployment rate for college graduates is less than half that for students with a high school diploma. Mr. Selingo’s Chronicle of Higher Education article posits that “Since the 1980s, the financial returns on a college degree compared to a high school diploma have grown significantly. In 1983 the college wage premium was 42%. Today it surpasses 80%.’ 

So there is, still today, a very real and very tangible value in obtaining a college degree. 

But it is so much more than financial metrics – and that is where I am going to combine both the value question with the original question about Catholic education in today’s society.

For us, at Loyola, our value proposition is not just measured in financial gains but in the very core mission of transformative education that changes lives. We are a Jesuit, Catholic institution with a mission rooted in Ignatian spirituality that dates back more than 450 years. That mission celebrates our diverse community that seeks God in all things. It is a mission that works to expand knowledge in the service of humanity through, learning, justice and faith. It is a mission that seeks to educate and inspire our students to be transformed by their educations to go forth and, as St. Ignatius said, “Set the world on fire.” 

Is there value in that kind of education today, is there value in Catholic Higher Education, in our city, in our communities, in our world?

During the ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica where our own Cardinal Cupich was elevated, the Holy Father re-affirmed His call for our diverse global community to end what He called an “epidemic of animosity and violence.” The Holy Father went on to say that this epidemic has a disproportionate impact on the most defenseless “because their voice is weak and silenced by [a] pathology of indifference.” This epidemic of animosity and violence has taken root here in our own city, with devastating consequences. 

Ignorance, apathy and indifference are often the enablers behind many of the acts of injustice that we witness today. For us in Catholic higher education, it is through our faith tradition and our commitment to academic excellence that we prepare students for lives of engagement with and service to one another. It is an education that empowers the defenseless; it seizes ignorance, apathy and indifference; and it becomes part of the soul, the very being of our students driving them to be agents of positive change locally and indeed globally. We deliver an engaged pedagogy rooted in a commitment not just to educate but to inspire hearts and minds to make the world a better place by being of service. Martin Luther King, Jr’s words that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” are so relevant today. At our heart, at our very being, we commit ourselves to work as societal change agents, engaging with the world in all of its grit and glory. We want to inspire our students and each other to reach deep within, risk discomfort, confront ambiguities, and take on the difficult and divisive issues impacting our world. Research institutions like Loyola are seen as the catalysts for breaking the cycle of poverty through education; the leaders of our political and governmental systems by modeling respectful dialogue and civil discourse; and the innovators developing breakthroughs in translational medical research to address health care disparities, environmental sustainability and more. 

At the end of the day, the true value of our education is not measured solely in dollars and cents, it is manifest in who our alumni become and how they apply their educations in service to others. We endeavor to train doctors and nurses who are committed to the dignity of every person. Lawyers who seek justice on behalf of their clients. Corporate executives rooted in ethical, values-based leadership. Social workers with empathy, and teachers who work to ensure that each student reaches his or her greatest human potential. Catholic education has also provided the foundation for many of our local and state government representatives to serve our communities. Knowing this should help give you hope, sustain your faith in our democracy, and raise your expectation for positive sustainable change. 

There is much work to be done to ensure that higher education remains accessible and affordable to a diverse community of talented young women and men, including students who speak a language other than English at home. All of us in higher education need to do a better job of recruiting and retaining a greater diversity of students. At Loyola, we have done a better job of recruiting students of color then we have of retaining them and helping them graduate. We must understand how we are failing not only these young women and men, but also all of our students who drop out often with significant loan debt and limited opportunities for gainful employment. It is time to change this narrative and the outcome. Access to education is a start, but it is not enough. These talented students need and deserve the financial resources, academic support, and engagement of our entire university community to help them persist to graduation, for their benefit and for our collective futures. All our young people who desire a college education, deserve a college education. They deserve to walk across the stage at Commencement knowing the diploma in their hands opens up possibilities many only dreamed about. Shaking the hands of each and every graduate and joining them in celebration is clearly one of the best and most profound parts of my job. That experience brings home the value of what we do--in each face and through every tear of joy and proud smile.

At this time in our history and in this place in our country, I believe that it is up to us as educators, as people of faith, and as members of this shared community to recommit ourselves each day to the important work of educating and working on behalf of the next generation. It is our shared mission in higher education and for all of us gathered here today. I hope you will agree that there is profound value in doing so.

Thank you.