Shrinking Religious Membership Drives Change in Catholic Higher Education Governance

A new study highlights the ways in which sponsoring Catholic organizations are responding to decreased membership by modifying their roles and responsibilities in governing Catholic-affiliated colleges and universities.

By AGB July 19, 2023 Press Releases
Press Release

For Immediate Release
Morgan Alexander

WASHINGTON, DC (July 19, 2023)—Today, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) published Relationship Reconsidered: Catholic Universities and Their Changing Governance Structures. Based on a survey conducted by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), the report describes how a growing number of religious sponsoring organizations have acknowledged their shrinking populations and are consequently modifying the governance structures and policies they use to support Catholic postsecondary education.

Understanding Catholic Governance

A college or university can only be considered Catholic if a religious organization authorized by the Catholic Church officially “sponsors” the institution. These religious organizations, often congregations, religious orders, or dioceses, typically hold some level of authority for the oversight and governance of the sponsored institution. One reason sponsorship matters is that the sponsor’s mission and goals influence institutional culture and priorities. For example, institutions sponsored by the Sisters of Charity emphasize a concern for the poor.

The Report

The report is based on a study that ACCU conducted in 2023, and updates a similar study AGB published in 2000. Presidents from 158 institutions, out of 189 invited, participated in the study, an 84 percent response rate. Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM, president of ACCU, wrote the report alongside Nadine Jalandoni, ACCU’s director of research.

“In the past two decades, we have seen enormous changes in both the Catholic Church and higher education,” said Holtschneider. “It only makes sense that the boards that oversee Catholic colleges and universities change with them. My hope is that these data help sponsors and higher education leaders find sustainable arrangements that benefit our students and society.”

Present Sponsors’ Influence Will Continue to Decrease

In response to survey questions, about a third of the respondents stated that their governance arrangements had changed in the past five years in response to the sponsors’ inability to maintain their traditional governance roles. Another 15 percent said their sponsors had already informed them that changes were to be expected for the same reason.

Forty-seven percent of responding presidents indicated that their sponsors will likely have less than 20 years before they can no longer exercise sponsorship in a meaningful way.

Changes in Governance Structures

As the number of individuals in the Catholic priesthood and religious orders has diminished, many sponsoring organizations are responding by changing the institutional governance structures that the Church has historically leveraged to guide Catholic higher education.

Traditionally, sponsors have reserved a percentage or number of seats on the governing board. While 80 percent of Catholic universities have this structure, some are reducing the number of representative seats, while others are eliminating age and term limits. At 11 percent of sponsored institutions, sponsors are asserting the right to appoint lay designees to fill their reserved seats.

In some instances, sponsoring organizations are focusing their influence on the board’s executive committee. In 2023, 41 percent of Catholic institution boards have reserved seats on the board’s executive committee. In 2000, no governing boards at Catholic institutions had this arrangement.

In a number of cases, religious congregations are fully stepping away, and replacement bodies composed mostly of lay professionals are being established to connect them with the Church.

Changes in Reserved Powers

Due to the changes in Catholic religious membership, the reserved powers afforded to sponsors has shifted dramatically:

  • Only 9 percent of institutions must seek approval from the sponsor to go above a particular debt amount, down from 45 percent in 2000.
  • Only 39 percent of responding institutions must seek approval for a change in mission, down from 53 percent in 2000.
  • Sixty-three percent of responding institutions now must seek approval from the sponsor to dissolve the institution. In 2000, that number was 55 percent.
  • In somewhat of a reversal, 25 percent of responding institutions currently must provide periodic reporting to the sponsor based on a set of standards around quality, mission, or other criteria. In 2000, no institutions reported that requirement.

“Sponsors and Catholic institutions are grappling with twin trends in the Church and in higher education,” said David Rowe, senior vice president and managing principal of AGB Consulting. “The decrease in religious vocations for sponsoring communities and the sector-wide disruption of higher education put many Catholic institutions in a double bind. Providing continuity with the past while meeting demands for the future is a responsibility that rests squarely with presidents and governing boards. It is incumbent on lay presidents and boards with dwindling representation of religious community members to find ways to institutionalize the mission and charism of the sponsor while sustaining its Catholic identity with the official support of another religious order or diocese. These questions are more complex and nuanced than the typical governance challenges faced by other colleges and universities, and boards would benefit from third-party facilitation through these fraught processes.”

This is the latest collaborative resource between AGB and ACCU. Earlier this year, the two organizations created an online orientation course specifically for governing boards of Catholic colleges and universities. On August 30, AGB will also provide a complimentary webinar for Catholic institution trustees and presidents who are guiding their colleges and universities through transition.

The report is available for AGB members on the website.

About AGB
The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) is the premier membership organization that strengthens higher education governing boards and the strategic roles they serve within their organizations. Through our vast library of resources, educational events, and consulting services, and with more than 100 years of experience, we empower 40,000 AGB members from more than 2,000 institutions and foundations to navigate complex issues, implement leading practices, streamline operations, and govern with confidence. AGB is the trusted resource for board members, chief executives, and key administrators on higher education governance and leadership. Learn more at


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