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.
Non-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.