What’s College About Anyway?

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.

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  • Guest

    This author makes a lot of good points.  Parents who are paying for college have every right to steer their child toward a college that reflects the family's values.  If I couldn't afford a good Catholic college, I would seriously consider having my kids live at home and attend the state college in our area, rather than send them away to a school where they would rack up debt and be tempted to drink, have sex, etc (not that those temptations wouldn't be there while living at home, but they might be easier to resist with Mom and Dad so near by).   Middle America acts like going away to college is a birthright or a right of passage, and I disagree with this.  I value the college education, but not necessarily the social implications that go along with dorm life.

  • Guest

    Community College is also a great stepping stone to University. There are so many good ones and with the astronomical costs of the 4 year university, are receiving more and more academicly minded students looking for an associates degree at better value. It also allows kids a couple more years to "grow up", commute from home or rent an apartment and transition into being on there own while mantaining a closer connection to family.


  • Guest

    There was a time in history when all higher learning was directed by the church. Knowledge was in a religious context. That's when civilizations were built. Higher education now for the most part is controlled by the secular world. The sceptics, the atheists, the pseudo-intellectuals are the fabric of academia. The Jesuits instead of affecting the secularists have themselves become infected.

    There is so much young energy and idealism and hopefullness that resides at these institutions and the majority of it is misdirected and squandered. The millstone size around the necks of the blind leaders will be proportional to the volume of cancerous philosophies that they pervey.

    On a practical note, there are still good schools that provide an excellent education. I picked one for my youngest since I write the check. So far I'm satisfied but every time I see her she can expect from me a question about her faith as well as an unwelcome critique of the college scene. I also make a mild threat that I will close the checkbook if I find out about any impropriety. Then she gets a cross on the forhead and a kiss goodbye. God she's yours.

  • Guest

    Leah, that's a great point.  I live in a an area with several good community colleges as well as a good state university, and I would seriously consider having my kids go to the community college for the first two years.  Let's put it this way:  I find that preferable to my husband and I working 80 hour weeks to save for expensive colleges.  By the way, I love your name;  I have a soft spot in my heart for the name "Leah" because that's the name of my beloved 8 month old niece!

  • Guest


    I liked your observation, "That's when civilizations were built."

    I'm not so sure we are building a civilization these days.  Sometimes it appears we are intent on tearing ours apart.

  • Guest

    I feel like many universities are simple training "monkeys" to go into the world in order to perform a focused money earning task.

    A liberal education is not valued. (Although the people with whom I enjoy socializing are liberally educated either formally or informally….people like CE readers!  You guys provide interesting, stimulating conversation and thought provoking insights….a rare  commodoty among my soccor parent acquaintances.) In addition, because the cost of any education, liberal or job focused, is astronomical students need to be able to get out of school and start earning the big bucks.

    Higher Education, for the most part, is now about learning how I can make a lot of money.  It's not about building up the Kingdom of God.  In other words, Civilization. (thanks Goral)

    Thank you for this timely article.  You have given me some tangible strategies for helping my children choose an institute of higher learning.  I hope my husband and I will always be able to impart to our kids the truth that all education should be focused toward knowing, loving, and serving God and being happy with him here and in heaven.

  • Guest

    We have chosen to send our children to an independent Catholic school that takes seriously its mission to assist parents in the academic and spiritual formation of their sons.  Upon graduation, we trust that they will have been sufficiently well-formed to be able to go out "into the deep" of the university setting.  We've already advised them that we plan carefully to monitor their course and major selection, assisting them in avoiding both the merely mediocre and the truly heretical, but fully aware that, at some point, they will encounter classmates, professors and, ultimately, employers, who simply do not share their interest in knowing, loving, and serving God.  Frankly, I would think that we had failed as parents if we felt compelled to force our sons to live at home during their college years so that we could protect them from worldly influences and/or make sure that they behaved.  

  • Guest

    College is not just simply a bastion of sin and bad behavior.  To be honest, it is a total learning experience that does indeed prepare you for the real world.  I led a pretty sheltered life in high school.  I had a great bunch of friends who were like minded and shared the same values and supportive families as I did.  I won every community service award imaginable, was president of the honor society, etc. My friends and I were neither big party kids nor were we boy crazy.  We went to a small suburban public high school and could have easily found a party on the weekend to go to, but we just weren't into that. Going away to college (even only the two hours away from home that I was) played a huge role in my maturation and personal growth.  My childhood friends still tell me that college did a world of good for me.  And I completely agree— it really helped my independence and my self-confidence and my ability to function without my loving, fabulous, but sometimes over protective parents (definitely not a flaw, more like a cute quirk—I am sure I will be the same way when God willing I am a parent some day!).  But, at the same time I know my parents raised my brother and I well, so I took all that I learned from them with me when I went away and developed it even further into my value system.  I didn't feel the need to act out or act crazy now that I was away from home. I felt like they were with me wherever I went and I had no issue saying: no, I don’t want to ditch my studies and go out to a bar on a Wednesday night. Did some of my classmates drink to excess, try drugs, and sleep around…yes, that stuff happens whether you go to a Catholic school, a protestant school, or the largest state university in the country…is it right or acceptable, no, but not everyone has been raised to know otherwise and I know a number of acquaintances who learned from their mistakes and have matured into great adults today.  Forgiveness is a beautiful thing.

    I went to a great little Catholic liberal arts college that had single sex dorms, no overnight guests of the opposite sex, and no alcohol (even if you were 21—there was a zero tolerance substance abuse policy and still is).  My college is very committed to mission: mission of the Catholic Church and mission of the founding order.  Every student is schooled in this.  It also has a great campus ministry program and strong liberal arts core curriculum. I was a very good Catholic upon entering college, but I feel that I grew so much in my faith and my ability to formulate strong opinions and back them up with fact and intellectual and theological dialog, rather than with name calling or damning or any other cruel and irrational, unintelligible behavior.  And I even went on to get a masters degree from an Ivy League institution.

    I have worked in university administration since I graduated from college and I currently work in graduate admissions— I am actually on the road recruiting right now and it has been a long day so excuse any typos or grammatical errors (!)— and I think the most important elements to the college search are: the type of education I will receive: liberal arts is always a great choice– really shapes the total person; community/environment: is this a community that I feel safe in, welcome in, and free to practice my faith and my values, but also is this a community I can learn in and out of the classroom and will continue to foster my good value system and help me to understand the workings of the world in a well informed manner…whether or not we agree with all that is going on in the world it is still there and we need to know how to deal with it when we are thrust into it.  Can I participate in community learning, service, worship, etc. 

    I strongly disagree with parents selecting the school for their children,  (I could seriously write a book about this scenario and others from my years in student services), but I strongly agree that students should contribute toward their schooling be it books, spending money, paying back the students loans following graduation, etc….as it states in the federal financial aid handbook…the student is the number 1 beneficiary of the college education.  And after spending years working in financial aid I whole heartedly agree that the community college system is terribly underused and don't believe that everyone is college material and a college education isn’t a given, it is a hard earned privilege. 

     My parents were fearful about my going away to college, too, but not because they feared I would fall in with a bad crowd or feel too much peer pressure, but on account of the fact that their baby was leaving the nest and they were going to miss me (and my twin brother, as we left for college a week apart).  When they came up for the first parents’ weekend about six weeks into my freshman year they saw how I was thriving and knew I had made the right decision.  I kept them very involved in the decision and they visited me frequently at school (because I wanted them there) to the point that they knew my professors and the administrators of my college!  My alma mater really encourages that.  College was and continues to be one of the best decisions I have ever met and it has really helped to shape the person I am today (of course, I had a great start with my Mom and Dad!).   

  • Guest

    Melissa: The basis for my wife and I choosing the children's college was based on our willingness to pay 90% of the freight. If the kids had decided on another school — which they were not prohibited from doing — they paid. If they chose to attend a community college and make a decision later, we would have allowed them to continue to room and board at home — rent free.

    If you have a book that suggests why that wasn't a reasonable deal, I'd like to read it. 
    College is not for everyone as C.S. Lewis points out in his essays. And it's a crying shame that the Industrial Arts or "shop" isn't around any more. And Home Economics for the girls. (if they want it.)