(Bloomberg) -- Times are hard on the campus of Notre Dame.

Not the famous University of Notre Dame, home to Fighting Irish football and more than 13,000 students — little Notre Dame College, a less prestigious Roman Catholic school in the US Midwest.

Over the past decade, the 102-year-old private college with about 1,400 students, located in South Euclid, Ohio, has watched its enrollment wither by a third. In January, the school announced it was exploring its options, including tying up with nearby Cleveland State University.

Similar stories are playing out at many of the 850-or-so colleges in the US that have religious, usually Christian, affiliations.

The economic vise tightening around the nation’s small secular colleges is squeezing religiously affiliated schools even harder. Some have closed already. More are bound to follow, administrators say.

The diverging paths of the two Notre Dames reflect the confluence of two powerful forces in the US today: economics and faith.

But their stories also encapsulate the gaping cultural, financial and political divisions that have come to define so much of American life. Conservative Christian students are heading in one direction. Secular liberal ones are heading in another.

First, the economics. Rich, prestigious colleges, whether secular or religious, are pulling further and further away from their poorer, less-well-known counterparts.

As in the Ivy League, the competition is heating up to get into famous Catholic institutions such as University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University and Boston College (the acceptance rate at Georgetown, dubbed the “New Brown,” has fallen to 12% from 16% over the past five years). Prominent Protestant universities such as Baylor University in Texas and Pepperdine University in California are doing just fine, too, as are Evangelical institutions.

But many smaller Christian colleges are struggling.

The brutal economics of higher ed — ever-rising costs, declining enrollment and stubborn questions about the real-world value of certain degrees — are being made worse by the dwindling number of young Americans who say organized faith is an important part of their lives. 

Money is at stake, too. The College of Saint Rose in New York is among the Catholic schools that are closing. That means bondholders holding $48 million of debt are bracing for potential losses. 

John Smetanka, interim president of Notre Dame College, characterizes the challenges facing small Christian colleges as “uniquely more difficult.” 

“Quite honestly, it is a serious challenge to ask how we’re going operate and keep the balance sheet balanced with the landscape of fewer students,” Smetanka said. “Many of us go into it with optimism and, especially religious schools, we have faith.”

That’s putting things mildly. Cardinal Stritch University in Wisconsin and Holy Names University in California — both Roman Catholic colleges — closed last year. So did New York’s Alliance University, which was affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and the Methodist Iowa Wesleyan University. 

On Feb. 16, Notre Dame College posted on social media that it was still figuring out its options.

Tiny Lincoln Christian University in Illinois plans to close its doors this May. Its president, Silas McCormick, captured the challenges by pointing to two students – roommates, in fact – who recently left LCU at the same time.

One thought the 80-year-old former Bible college was too religious. The other felt it wasn’t religious enough.

Like a growing number of small secular colleges, LCU has been driven to the brink by dwindling enrollment. Its seminary is being acquired by Ozark Christian College – part of the running consolidation in US higher ed.

“For schools that are serious about being Christian schools, the divide among American Christians leaves them very challenged to stake out the appropriate position,” McCormick said.

Others point to still another challenge: While the likes of Harvard University attract plenty of rich kids, small religious colleges often cater to students who are less well-off and offer discounts on tuition. That strategy has stretched those schools’ finances to the breaking point.

Students at troubled colleges are being left in a lurch.

Faith Younce spent two years at Iowa Wesleyan, only to be forced to come up with a Plan B.

“It’s really hard to trust another small school,” said Younce, who now attends Culver-Stockton College in Missouri.

Bigger, richer colleges are another story. At the Roman Catholic Villanova University, a sports powerhouse in Pennsylvania, admissions have become more selective. Evangelical Liberty University, where the honor code prohibits alcohol and same-sex relationships, is also thriving: Its endowment now exceeds $2 billion.

Many Evangelical colleges are luring students by playing up their Christian roots, conservative values and, in some cases, Republican politics.   

“The real divide between success and failure in this market is the extent to which a school presents a clear Christian identity,” said P. Jesse Rine, an expert on Christian higher education.  

Back at little Notre Dame College, Ivan Maric, a student-athlete on the football team, is worried he’ll lose his scholarship if the college closes and he has to change schools. Fellow students at Notre Dame, home of the Falcons, are in the same boat.

“We have no idea what the future is,” Maric said.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.