A few years ago, I sat with my wife and oldest daughter at the graduation Mass of our 8th grader. When you're a parent you find yourself in these situations thinking or whispering to someone nearby that "they grow up quickly," and feeling kind of sad and happy at the same time.
Sitting in the pew as the graduates processed, my eye framed both daughters and, as dads do, I wondered if my wallet could take the strain. Now, five years later we have a college graduate on her own and learning about the "real" world; and a freshman at a college in Michigan. But before we celebrated those successes we went through what many parents and their children struggle with — where the kids will go for "higher" education.
In his homily to the graduates that day not so long ago, the priest spoke of the protection they have received during their time at the parish school: the loving family of the church, their teachers, and parents active in their education. He spoke of the different setting they may encounter as they go forth: that evil and sin will tempt them at high school; and that hopefully they will take with them the lessons of their parish school years and continue to come to church and grow in faith and obey God's law.
I imagine Father's remarks paralleled the hope and prayers of the parents at the Mass. Most of us agree it's a tough and sometimes ugly world out there. But few parents of high school seniors are as aware as they should be that a lot of the ugliness is bred on the campuses and in the classrooms of the universities and colleges we expensively send our children to each fall. And for many parents with a child entering their senior year, this past summer was a time for visits to college campuses being considered for attendance next year.
In a June 12, 2002 commentary in National Review Online titled "Reading Between the Lies During Campus Visits: A Guide for Innocent Parents and Perplexed Students," Winfield Meyers, then communications director for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, had a lot of good advice and suggestions for parents in the process of making college enrollment decisions with their children.
The Institute's mission is defined on the pages of their web site and has helped form a solid basis for parents in evaluating the purpose of an education as a vital component in maintaining a free, virtuous and humane society in a representative democracy. If you're like me you probably welcome help like that and knowing that there are people besides those in the church's schools interested in the "Illumination of Truth through the Light of Faith."
But I have a question: Why do most parents send children to college? Is it to make them hireable and eligible for good paying jobs: to launch them into a world of big money and material accumulation? Catholic high schools record and promote the fact that more than 90% of their graduates go on to college… a four year college. Academically speaking, that evidences the high value of the preparation they get at Catholic schools.
But if the next four years is spent away from home at a place where the values and support network we have relied on doesn't exist, or is actively discouraged or worse yet prohibited, then the thousands of dollars in tuition may get the child a diploma and that golden interview, but the child may become someone we no longer know or even recognize. Would you really choose to finance that outcome?
Lately, we've heard people in the know, like former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, recite that only 40% of boys and 60% of girls in college actually graduate in six years. Six years, not four. Are parents prepared to finance that outcome?
Not all Catholics will attend a Catholic university or college. But for those who are interested, it's a good idea for both the student and parents to acquaint themselves with one of Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitutions Ex corde Ecclesiae. Issued in 1990, the purpose of this directive from the Holy Father was to reassert a standard for Catholic education at the university level.
Surprisingly, several Catholic colleges in the United States have continually balked at the reforms directed by the Pope. Why? Well, you should probably make that one of the questions you ask any Catholic school you are considering. And if their response is not satisfactory — reconsider your choices. For that matter you may want to consult The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, at http://thenewmanguide.com/, available this October.
John Henry Cardinal Newman's statement "The Idea of a University" continues to advise and direct parents and academics on what a liberal education is: Disciplined intellect, not technical training. The good news for parents and their children is that there are many fine schools throughout the country where a solid Catholic education is available.
As for Mr. Meyer's general advice, he warns parents to develop a critical eye and look beyond the brochures and gleaming athletic facilities to discover the true nature of any school by asking many questions — probing questions. Lots of information can be had from the school's web site where course descriptions and goals of department heads are revealed often times in the professors' own words. These paragraphs often contain key words which can lead to discerning an agenda or politicization which may be denied in a face-to-face talk, yet is surely a sign of something other than genuine learning as the goal.
Another good place to search in the web site is the lists of approved student groups. If there's no sanctioned orthodox religious clubs on campus but several wicans, free sex or diversity clubs — beware. The bulletin board at the student commons or library is another good place to check out the school's social milieu and see what kind of groups are active on campus.
Meyer says "Assessing a school's academic life requires that you look beyond reputation. Ask what percentage of classes is taught by teaching assistants (TAs) during a student's first two years." When parents are paying big league prices for their kid's education, they have a right to get major league players in the classrooms — not minor league wannabes. And you should find out if the school assigns advisor roles to professors, or has others including TAs doing that job. At the college our youngest attends, her advisor is a tenured Professor and former Dean of the Philosophy Department with thirty years teaching experience, and a full class schedule.
ISI feels strongly about something they term the "core curriculum" and have some helpful and informative pamphlets which they offer free to student members of their organization and at reasonable prices to others. The core curriculum is defined as those "essential subjects necessary to provide a framework to help students figure out what's going on in the universe" and includes foreign language, literature, history, philosophy, theology, and economics. It's comparable to a well balanced meal. You want to make sure you have all the academic food groups in your diet if you expect to grow up healthy.
Many universities and colleges around the country have limited the number of courses required and offered in the core in order to graduate; and ISI warns parents to investigate what is available at a school before committing to enroll. They give advice on what subjects to choose from the varied course offerings in order to come away from college with a solid base of knowledge. Returning to the meal analogy: you don't want to have your college student eat junk food for four years. ISI has lots of advice on avoiding that kind of intellectual starvation diet.
Among other things Meyers advises is that you "ask whether all students must study Western history and literature as well as American history. Many schools have made these courses optional so that students graduate with little or no exposure to the events, personalities, or ideas of Western civilization." But they get to vote.
Another issue Mr. Meyers alerts parents to is the social experiments some colleges partake under the guise of student housing. He warns that often "only coed dorms are offered, though some have single sex floors… others, however are only single sex by room, and a few [colleges] even offer coed rooms." Some schools give themselves away by offering substance free housing for those students who aren't interested in drugs or alcohol. Amazing, isn't it?
Also of concern are speech or harassment codes, as they're often called. Meant to control debate, students might find themselves ostracized or even punished for disagreeing with "received academic opinion, whether the subject in question is feminist scholarship, the morality of affirmative action, or sexual proprieties." Meyers writes "defending your beliefs in the face of criticism is part of the college experience; facing official condemnation for voicing them is unacceptable."
But all is not hopeless, for Meyers suggests that even in polarized, liberal universities "great professors are still around, but it's up to students to root them out."
A final personal point. Lots of the parents of our daughter's friends allowed their kids to apply to several colleges. I've read opinions as to why this is a good idea but I'd like to speak to another issue. We didn't let our children choose their college. Because we are paying 90% of the costs, we directed their choices to a couple of schools to which we were willing to give our money. Our eldest thought that she had been condemned to a cloister, but, at the first Thanksgiving visit home, could only think about the return trip and her friends.
This time there's a bit more distance between us and the nineteen year old. We listened to her grouse about her tuition contribution and having to pay for books until the day she left for Michigan. Once there, she met her roommate whose parents had asked the girl to make the same financial contributions. That helped confirm that we had chosen a college where the student's values likely paralleled our own. Parents don't allow kids to choose what car the family buys, why then the college?
The ISI booklets are worthwhile reading and raise topics to discuss with your children as part of the college decision making process. But it's my opinion that the adults should be assembling the list of appropriate schools. And if you want help you can get a free copy of "Asking the Right Questions in Choosing a College: A Guide for Students and Their Parents."
If you made college trips this past summer you have decisions to make. If this is on your horizon, it's time to get prepared.