Xavier University is in serious trouble.

Warped wooden floors and ruined desks have been stripped out of Xavier University’s main campus building. Its 4,000 students are scattered across the nation. Half the faculty and staff have been laid off.

The nation’s only historically black and Roman Catholic college, which expected to be celebrating its 180th anniversary this year, was battered to the brink of financial collapse by Hurricane Katrina.

Things are so tough that Xavier has had to fire or place on unpaid leave more than half its employees.

Chemistry professor Heike Geissler learned of her termination last month at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where she has been watching over eight Xavier students who enrolled there after Katrina.

“I don’t want to see Xavier going bankrupt or disappearing from the map, so I’m not mad or sad,” said Geissler, who taught there for seven years and was tenured in 2005. “I have to get on with my life. I’m very seriously considering leaving Louisiana.”

As are many others. Condolences to Geissler on her misfortune. At financially secure institutions like Williams, tenure is forever — just ask Aida Laleian! At places like Xavier, it’s not.

[President] Francis said Xavier plans to hold classes on its own campus [in January], though the water-damaged ground floors of many buildings may have to be sealed off. He expects roughly half the student body to come back for the winter semester.

Rene Turner, a 21-year-old Xavier senior in pre-medicine, hopes to be among them. She transferred for the fall to Williams College.

“I feel like that’s my home now,” Turner, of Kansas City, Mo., said of Xavier. “I have a deep connection there and have spent so much time there. I definitely want to graduate from Xavier.”

Good for her.

But should the rest of us mourn the loss of Xavier? I am not sure. Xavier has an amazing history, but its current practices are not always, shall we say, beyond criticism.

For example, only about 60% (see page 4) of the students that enroll at Xavier as freshmen graduate with a degree in less than 6 years. See page 9 for more details. Consider the enrollment by class of the main Xavier program in fall 2004.

Freshmen:   1,334
Sophomores:   793
Juniors:      534
Seniors:      557

Students only familiar with the tendency of Williams and other elite schools to graduate virtually everyone who enrolls may have trouble making sense of these numbers. Where do all the freshmen go?

They drop out. Places like Xavier — and there are many other financially-strapped institutions like it — are quite willing to let in the vast majority of students who apply even if they know that those students are highly likely to drop out and have nothing to show for their effort except a nice chunk of student loan debt.

In other words, Xavier lets in hundreds of students each year (and takes their money) even though it knows that there is a 90% chance that these students — the ones from the bottom 1/4 of its applicant pool — will never get a college degree.

Now, one might charitably claim that Xavier is just giving all these students a chance, that it is providing an opportunity to those who might not get an opportunity elsewhere. Perhaps. I take a much more cynical view. Xavier needs money. Accepting unqualified applicants and loading them up with student debt for a year or two generates revenue. Failing them after it becomes clear that they are not “college material” ensures the continued value of a Xavier degree.

Or am I missing something?

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