A Catholic Education for Every Catholic Kid: The Puzzle of a Catholic College Life

This is the eighth in a series of columns on the importance of giving all Catholic kids a Catholic education (Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four, Part five, Part six, Part seven). My experience on the topic of keeping Catholicism in college life encompasses my own college experiences and being fresh off a tour of colleges with our oldest child. The first thing to say is, "Man, what a difference 23 years makes!" I don't remember the pursuit of a college degree being quite so prolonged or as intense as it seems to be today. Several students on one of our tours were only freshmen in high school, and at least one high school junior had had a professional college coach since she had graduated from eight grade. If you're anything like I am, your verbal response to hiring a "coach" just for getting into college is, "Okay, that's just ridiculous!" At the same time your subconscious response is, "Gosh, I didn't even know there was such a thing as a college coach. I wonder if it's too late to hire one?"

In truth, the dilemma of where to begin and what to consider when looking at colleges can be as daunting as a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle depicting a calm ocean on a cloudless day. Which end is up and which is down?! As we begin to solve this sizable puzzle with our first child and eventually with all five of our children, the only horizon line I have is the belief that the process of choosing a college is essentially the same as choosing any other system of schooling. We start by putting the most important piece of the puzzle in first, and that piece is Jesus. Jesus is the cornerstone of the Catholic Christian faith, and as anyone who has worked on puzzles knows, finding a corner piece is the first, best way to begin containing the rest of the pieces of any puzzle.

Ideologically, we put Jesus first in the college puzzle by remaining convicted that all Catholic kids deserve a Catholic education and praying that God will show us and them a college environment where they can continue to grow in their faith. Practically, we put Jesus first by considering the Catholic environment of each college right along side the academics, costs, and other considerations. If a college advertises itself to be Catholic, we have to ask, "Is it faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church both inside and outside of the classroom, or has it swept authentic Catholic teachings under the rug of academic freedom?" A college that professes to be Catholic, but is wishy-washy in its practice of that profession, could do more harm than good to our college student's faith life. On the other hand, God may be in the process of revitalizing the faith life of a Catholic campus and could call our child to be a part of that.

When looking at secular colleges or public universities, the good news is that there are more ways for students to maintain and incorporate their faith into their educational lives than were available for them at secular or public high schools. A good way to explore the Catholic environment of a secular college is to check out the vibrancy of its Catholic Newman Center. Another, newer, Catholic college ministry to look for on campuses is called "Fellowship of Catholic University Students" or FOCUS. InterVarsity and Campus Crusade are two large, interdenominational ministries which provide Bible studies and fellowship groups for college students. These ministries are run and attended by members of Protestant and Evangelical Christian churches primarily, but I mention them because I joined an InterVarsity Bible study while attending a public university and found it to be a nice way to deepen my knowledge of the Bible and to augment my Newman Center involvement. A word of caution, however. Some Protestant and Evangelical churches teach that Catholics are not Christians. If your child is not strong in his or her Catholic beliefs and identity, attending any non-Catholic, Christian group may make him or her a target for proselytizing (trying to convert someone from one Christian church to another), perhaps causing them to leave the Catholic Church.

Father and older son study a book togetherNon-Catholic Christian colleges may be attractive for a variety of reasons. One benefit of attending a strictly Christian college is that the administrators often take the faith element of the school very seriously. However, even more than with Protestant and Evangelical ministries at secular colleges, we need to be careful of blatant, anti-Catholic teaching, and of less obvious, but just as damaging, anti-Catholic prejudices held by professors and other students. One can never fully know the mind of God, but choosing among Catholic, secular, and non-Catholic, Christian colleges needs to be done with full knowledge of the benefits and risks involved with each.

After conviction and prayer, the other three corners of the college decision-making puzzle can be represented by the steps we've taken before in deciding how to education our children in grades K-12. We find the second corner of the puzzle by making a list of our and our child's educational desires independent of specific colleges. What are our child's areas of interest both inside and outside the classroom? What do we and what does our child really want from the college experience and eventually from his or her college degree? Along with opportunities for Catholic spiritual development, we should consider things like the size of the student body, the location of a college, how far it is from home, arrangements for room and board, opportunities for international and domestic exchange programs, internships, honors and pre-professional classes, professor-to-student ratio, and the caliber of the institution. Once our list is drawn, we need to prioritize it, because no single college will be capable of meeting all educational desires.

The third corner of the college puzzle is to take stock of our financial situation. How much can we, or are we willing, to pay for college, and how much can or would we like our child to pay? What types of financial aid — work study, scholarship, loan, or other programs — are available? While weighing all these, I think it is important to remember that a college degree is an investment in our child's future. Accumulating some amount of college debt for tuition, room, and board is not unreasonable in the process of gaining the qualifications necessary for a higher paying job in the future.

"Your decision [on college debt] should depend at least in part on the paycheck you expect upon graduation. An aspiring musician might want to borrow less than a future computer scientist," says Jacqueline King, director of policy analysis for the American Council on Education. Sandy Baum, an economics professor at Skidmore College and a senior policy analyst at the College Board gives a good rule of thumb: "For the average college grad, it's reasonable to expect to put about 10 to 12 percent of your income a month toward paying back college loans" (www.usnews.com, "You Owe Yourself a Degree," March 9, 2007). It is worth mentioning that accumulating consumer debt during college cannot be looked at in the same light as taking on debt in order to pay for tuition, room, and board.

The fourth and final corner of the college puzzle is collecting data on individual colleges. When we begin, we need to search as widely as possible, then narrow the choices down by studying reference books, visiting college web sites, talking with students attending different schools, visiting the schools themselves, and getting references from high school guidance counselors. Especially if we have more than one child, we need to remember that there is no "one-size-fits-all" college. We shouldn't expect different children to automatically want to go to the same college nor should we expect any of our children to involuntarily attend our alma mater. It's also important to remember that college is not mandatory, and that not all 18 year-olds are ready for college life or academics, even if they would like to go.

I remain convinced that there is never a time in our child's educational journey when we can just check their Catholic faith at the door and then expect them to come back to it once they have graduated. Faith, like other types of intelligence, just doesn't grow that way. The scripture we can pray as our children prepare to spread their wings and fly is Matthew 6:31-33. Inserting our child's name (Suzy, for example) in the scripture passage helps to make this a powerfully personal prayer. "Therefore do not worry, saying, "What will [Suzy] eat?" or "What will [Suzy] drink?" or "What will we [Suzy] wear?" For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed [Suzy's] heavenly Father knows that [Suzy] need[s] all these things. But [tell Suzy to] strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to [Suzy] as well."

Hiring a college coach to find schools and scholarships for our child could be quite helpful, but it is certainly not necessary. What is necessary is that we continue to trust in God's love for our child and that, together with our child, we continue to desire and to seek God's plan for his or her life. More than any other single factor, I believe prayer will help us make sense of this 1,000-piece brainteaser. The best book I've come across about making solid decisions from a Catholic point of view is titled What Does God Want?, by Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. I highly recommend this short, absorbing book, which will benefit parents and kids alike. Next time, we will wrap up this series of columns on the importance of giving all Catholic kids a Catholic education.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Guest

    Another great aritcle Mrs. Bratton.  We have one child that is a junior in college and the second is currently "shopping around" for a college as she is a senior.  My son chose a decent Catholic college that is on the rebound in terms of its Catholic identity.  I couldn't help but look at the beautiful Church and Catholic elements of the campus and feel the hopes and desires of those that founded this school for the love of Him.  I wanted my son to be a part of that.  I'm convinced that the dessert of Catholic higher ed is coming to and end.  There is still a lot of problems out there, but there are at last some saintly people trying to make a change.

  • Guest

    Thanks Heidi.  I have passed this link on to friends and their college discerning youth.  BTW what you said about Inter-Varsity is true.  Although priests in my home parish were skeptical and some members were anti-Catholic I enjoyed my Inter-Varsity experience, was on the leadership team and realize it lead to my religious vocation!   If a youth is strong n their faith they can learn a lot form INter-Varsity and can be a strong witness to Catholic Christianity.  Like Newman Centers each chapter needs to be checked out!

  • Guest

    First off, I noticed one little typo in this otherwise wonderful article…FOCUS stands for FELLOWSHIP of Catholic University Students (you have it as Focus on Catholic University Students).  I am currently a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln which is quickly becoming a leader in FOCUS campuses.  Before I even heard about FOCUS however I had heard about the Newman Center at UNL from older friends and decided to check it out my senior year in highschool.  After attending mass and a few events there I was completely drawn to it.  The Newman Center was one of the key factors that made my decision to attend UNL.  The Newman Center has truly helped me hone my Catholic faith more than ever before.  I have grown more in my faith in the past year and a half in college than all the previous years of my life combined.  Then Newman center is my second home and I have no idea where my faith would be without it. 

  • Guest

    Another group on campuses in Canada is called CCO- Catholic Christian Outreach, an organization similar to Campus Crusade for Christ, but Catholic.

  • Guest

    Anawim

    CAVEAT EMPTOR!!! My eldest daughter, who had been home-educated and was a daily communicant for years got involved in an Evangelical church group. Their idea of "waiting until marriage" is NOT what the Catholic Church teaches about chastity! Many Evangelical groups do not consider "outercourse" a sin. Oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, and very heavy necking and petting are considered just fine in a dating relationship. Without solid teaching on the Theology of the Body, as we have access to, a good number of Evangelical groups believe it is all OK as long as you don't "Go all the way!"

    Even though she had been taught from an early age what chastity means, and we taught NFP for 25 years, it recently came to my attention that her exposure to the Protestant perspective on dating and sexuality seriously undermined her commitment to "purity" before marriage. Fortunately, she still wears her "promise ring" given to her on her 16th birthday by her father and me and she broke up with her Evangelical boyfriend. But sadly, boundaries were crossed that will have a negative effect on her future male/female relationships for a long time to come.

  • Guest

    Anawim

    One other caveat–that same daughter who was attending the Newman Center at the University of Iowa while in grad school found that an openly gay man was allowed to be a Eucharistic minister. At my other daughter's school, The University St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN the campus Liturgist is also an openly practicing homosexual. Make sure that even if your son or daughter finds a good Catholic college, that they recognize the Enemy has infiltrated so many areas on even the Catholic campuses.

  • Guest

    The Couple to Couple League has long offered specific advice about choosing a college. Either a student lives at home, or he attends one of the handful of authentic Catholic colleges.

    We ignored that advice and chose a "liberal" Catholic college due to its offering of a hard-to-find major. We came to regret that choice — our daughter was taught heterodoxy and eventually lost her faith. (Fortunately, Mary wrapped her mantle around our daughter and has led her back.)

    With ALL our younger children, we have insisted upon the above rule. It has proven to be a much wiser path.

  • Guest

    Apologies to all the great folks at FOCUS — the error has been fixed.

  • Guest

    Anawim

    Thanks for the words of encouragement, Guitarmom! I insisted on the children attending solid Catholic colleges, but their father did not agree. Yes, our eldest, too,–the one I referred to, has lost her faith. I pray daily when I receive the Eucharist for the Lord (and now I will add Mary to the intersession) to woo her Home (by this Christmastime please Jesus and Mary!)

     

     

  • Guest

    I do agree that the few "authentic" Catholic colleges out there are doing wonderful things, and are great for many people. But I strongly disagree with CCL's position (keep your kids home or send them to one of those few). In my opinion, there is great value in attending a college or university that stretches your faith, and makes you really think about what you believe and why. If your faith background is not solid already (say you went to CCD but never REALLY learning your faith at home) I can see the benefits of attending a strict or more orthodox college. But if you are well-equipped by your family, the next step of growth in Christian maturity is to learn how to defend your faith and be an effective evangelist in the world. The BEST WAY to do this (I strongly believe) is to encounter, debate with and befriend non-Catholics and non-Christians, even (and especially!) those who disagree with and challenge you. If you stay at home and never encounter opposition to your faith (in other words, never have to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" as St. Paul says) your faith will be that much the weaker for it.

    Sorry for the rant, but this attitude of wanting to "shelter" your children all the time, most of their lives, to the point of keeping them away from anything even POSSIBLY harmful, is really disturbing to me. To be a fully mature Christian, you NEED experience with difference, and not just reading about it. As Catholic Christians, we are to engage the world while living wholly for Christ; to live in the world but not of it. Why do we so often forget the first part of that calling?

    By the way, I am a Catholic convert who found her faith (in Jesus and ultimately the Church) at a Lutheran college. My boyfriend is a revert who rediscovered Catholicism after attending the Univ. of St. Thomas, but not before a couple years as an evangelical (he even handed out tracts on "how to be saved" with intervarsity). I am not a parent (so forgive me, for all I know my opinions will change someday), but to those of you with children who have drifted…please don't lose faith. I will pray for them, too. When they come back, they will be SO MUCH STRONGER for their questioning.

MENU