Colleges for Catholics (and Catholic Colleges)

Graduations are just around the corner, and I would assume that most high school seniors heading on to college next year have already picked their schools and are now navigating the treacherous waters of financial aid forms. However, ’tis the season, and with Catholic colleges somewhat in the news at the moment (and the realization that despite my thinking of myself as recently down from college I am in fact eight years out — with my eldest daughter likely heading off to college herself in eleven years) I thought it might be an appropriate time to assess the practicalities of Catholic higher education — or more properly, of higher education for Catholics.

In our social circle, I know a number of parents who proclaim that no child of theirs shall ever go to any but one of 3-5 approved, orthodox Catholic colleges. (The contents of these lists vary slightly depending on the speaker, but Thomas Aquinas, Steubenville, Ave Maria, Christendom, University of Dallas and Benedictine are names one hears often.) I find myself less of one mind on the question, in part because my wife and I both actually went to Steubenville (class of ’01). My goal here is not to advocate one specific course as the only wise one for serious Catholics, but to lay out the advantages and disadvantages of all. I think there are basically two sets of concerns that parents have in these discussions, moral and academic. I shall begin with the moral.

I don’t think it’s news to anyone at this point that if one takes living according to Christian moral precepts seriously in this day and age, one will fine oneself pretty well outside the cultural mainstream. Thus, Catholic parents who have spent the last eighteen years carefully bringing up their children in the faith and trying to protect them from the worst evils of the world shudder at the thought of their children being exposed to the massive amounts of drugs, sex and drunkenness floating around many of today’s college campuses.

Unless things have calmed down a lot in the last eight years, my impression is certainly that college is every bit as much of a temptation-ground as many parents fear. One does indeed have to worry about being locked out of one’s room while one’s roommate is having sex (or in the case of one friend of mine, waking up to find things proceeding despite her presence.) Residence assistants cheerfully provide bags of condoms on their doors for students, and occasional training videos just in case anyone had any doubt what to do with them. And drugs and drunkenness are quite prevalent.

Colleges such as Steubenville and Ave Maria do indeed offer a welcome respite from this mainstream college culture. Having seen syringes lying in the hallway and watched joints being passed around when I was a come-and-see-er at St. John’s College Sante Fe, Steubenville’s wholesome atmosphere was one of the things that drew me there. However, parents should realize that the world is the world, and even somewhere like Steubenville is not a totally sheltered environment. Keg parties were only held under the radar and off campus, but alcohol was definitely available at Steubenville (the alcoholic down the hall was always willing to buy me brandy, gin and vermouth while I was still underage, in perverse gratitude to those who had provided him with booze before he was of age) and there were always a few junior and senior year marriages followed a few months later by the birth of the first child.

In other words, a college like Steubenville has the virtue of not actively encouraging vice, but vice is still readily available if you look for it. The people I knew who had been sent there by parents hoping the college would somehow keep their children from partying when the parents had been wholly unsuccessful in doing so before were generally to be disappointed. However, the majority of us (who did indeed want to live out a Catholic lifestyle) had the benefit of enforced norms that kept underground life underground.

There were downsides to the college’s efforts to enforce morality. Having met the woman who was to be my wife a couple weeks into my freshman year, the fact that the college felt it necessary to make it very, very hard to spend time alone together (even in perfect innocence) grated quite a bit. I had earned my parents’ trust as a teenager and as a result had a very relaxed set of rules to follow. I did not enjoy being constantly under surveillance when at college. As a movie buff, I also found the college rules about which movies could be viewed in the dorms (we had these things called VCRs back in those days) rather annoying.

However, though all of these things grated on me at times, that was in fact one of the reasons that I had picked the college. I had several good friends who’d gone up to college a year before me at secular universities, and all the other colleges I applied to were secular. My eventually realization (which I continue to hold to this day) was that given how different the moral culture was at these secular colleges, I would have become a rather insufferable puritan out of pure reaction. I would have found myself objecting even to thing that need not be objected to, simply because I was so used to objecting. Going to Steubenville allowed me to be on the more permissive end of the spectrum, and to spend my first years in the adult world getting my bearings without swimming so hard against the cultural stream as to become a complete reactionary. From those sheltered waters, I was able to strike out into the wider world when I entered the workplace with very little culture shock. But at 18, and in the full contact climate of dorm life, I don’t think I was ready to deal with the full moral range of modern society right up in my face.

On the academic side, I would tend to see things are somewhat mixed. Secular academia is often subject to the strange whims of the modern age. At one college I looked at, the majority of the history courses (History was my original intended major, though I eventually switched to Classics at Steubenville) were cross-listed offerings from the Womens’ Studies, Afrocentric or GLTB studies departments. However, colleges like Steubenville put a very heavy teaching load on their professors, making it next to impossible for them to do much serious research or publishing. And there were always a few academics there who had pretty clearly been employed because of their strong Catholic identity — and despite scholarly mediocrity. Just as I have no patience of other areas of “identity studies”, I don’t see that there’s any great virtue in a Catholic version of the same.

One of the difficulties of this kind of intentionally Catholic academic environment is that it opens all quarrels up to be quarrels over whose attitude is most Catholic. Indeed, one of the general difficulties with a Catholic college is that all quarrels effectively become family quarrels. And so, for instance, we had a class on the French Revolution by one professor which was so shoddy in its scholarship that I’d been specifically warned not to take it by my advisor, and yet it was defended by many who claimed for it the virtue of being a specifically Catholic take on the topic.

There is also the difficulty that since orthodox Catholics have become so used to the culture war mentality that a certain amount of friendly fire is touched off. So for instance, there were modern plays that are seriously worth reading and discussing that would certainly never be performed on campus and were usually only read in 300 level Drama classes because the use of profanity would have raised too many eyebrows with a wider audience. Similarly, the 200-level Biology class that covered physical anthropology (and thus human evolution) usually ended up a morass of class discussion as non-majors taking their science core attempted to bring up creation science and intelligent design arguments.

The fact that we are acting in a hostile society makes running a Catholic college all the more difficult, because academia will at times be dealing with the problematic fringes of intellectual inquiry, and yet when we are struggling to make a college seriously Catholic, we naturally recoil against things which seem too far off the path. This makes the project of running a Catholic college in an adverse culture doubly difficult.

From the remove I am now at, I remain grateful for my Steubenville education. I also see a number of difficulties with that sort of college. When it comes time for my daughters to choose a college, I will probably simply lay out the arguments in both directions and leave them to choose.

24 Responses to Colleges for Catholics (and Catholic Colleges)

  1. Elaine Krewer says:

    A good post, but you might want to make it clear that the “orthodox” college list refers to Benedictine College in Atchison, Kans. and not Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill.

    If a specifically “orthodox” Catholic college or university is out of the question due to cost, lack of appropriate course offerings or other factors, the next best alternative might be to choose a secular school with a top-notch Newman Center like that of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (Don can vouch for this.) I believe a secular school with a really good Newman Center is preferable to a “Catholic in name only” school when it comes to faith formation and support.

    If keeping your child away from temptation is a concern, you might try sending them to a local junior college for a year or two (keeping them at home) and then allowing them to transfer to the state university for the last two years. If they enroll as juniors, they will usually not be obligated to live on campus, and may be able to live in an off-campus apartment with like-minded roommates (which, perhaps, the Newman Center might be able to help them find).

  2. karen says:

    I second the U of I at Urbana-Champaign! Its where my husband converted from atheist to Catholic. He was always impressed by the “island of Faith” in the middle of the college culture which he never considered until grad school.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Elaine and Karen are right! A bright spot in my seven year sojourn at the U Of I was the Newman Center. From the packed Saurday midnight masses to the activities for undergrads and grads, the Newman Center was a beacon for Catholic students in Chambana! One of my sons is planning on attending there, and I think he has made an excellent choice!

  4. John Henry says:

    And so, for instance, we had a class on the French Revolution by one professor which was so shoddy in its scholarship that I’d been specifically warned not to take it by my advisor, and yet it was defended by many who claimed for it the virtue of being a specifically Catholic take on the topic.

    My wife and I also took that class, although without forewarning. Certain quotes from the professor are still running jokes in our house, and it was one of the worst classes I’ve ever taken. Attending a ‘secular’ grad school now with graduates from a wide range of schools, I am leaning more towards “you are only allowed to attend these schools!” parental authoritarianism, although I think it depends on the child. I certainly have concerns about academic excellence, and Steubenville was very hit and miss. But I think there is value in living in a distinctively Catholic community for a period of several years, and conversations with siblings, classmates, and co-workers suggest the undergrad campus experience at many colleges is hostile intellectually and socially to practicing Catholicism. I don’t think most seventeen and eighteen year-olds are well-equipped to deal well with those types of tensions, although some are.

    Catholic communities also have their downsides; Steubenville could be fairly insular. In the end, though, I think I left a better person and a better Catholic than I would have at another college. That, more than any other reason, is why I would at least recommend my child attend a Catholic college.

  5. bearing says:

    And if they want to major in something outside the liberal arts?

    Or if they want to spend (or borrow) an amount of money that is rational and commensurate with their likely earning power, given their choice of major, and their future ability to pay back borrowed funds? (I read this past week that only about 30% of college bound young adults and/or their parents consider future earning power when weighing how much to pay for college, something that blows me away in its irresponsibility)

    There’s a real moral cost to incurring a huge debt at a young age. There’s a real moral cost to expecting your PARENTS to pay an enormous amount of money for college.

  6. cminor says:

    I’d suggest Belmont Abbey College in NC (which also has many scholarship and financial aid options.) But an orthodox Catholic college is no guarantor that the individual student won’t find plenty of occasions of sin or will still be a practicing Catholic by graduation. I went to public college and U myself and can vouch for the success of good campus ministry programs.

    For a student who is a bit immature or unreliable, I’d recommend any public college or university within easy commuting distance while living at home, at least for the first two years.

  7. Jay Anderson says:

    For some reason, I’m just not sold on the “orthodox” Catholic colleges. I think Brendan does a good job of laying out some of the things I’m concerned about.

    I’ve got no problem encouraging my kids to go somewhere like the University of Virginia, where I know they will have access to the Dominicans at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. I’ve also heard that Texas A&M has a very solid Newman Center.

  8. Rick Lugari says:

    At one college I looked at, the majority of the history courses (History was my original intended major, though I eventually switched to Classics at Steubenville) were cross-listed offerings from the Womens’ Studies, Afrocentric or GLTB studies departments.

    I know your type, you didn’t go to that school because you’re a sexist racist heterosexist! Shame on you!

  9. Big Tex says:

    Excellent post. All good things to consider when Bubba and his sisters are of age for college. Bearing raises a good point on cost vs. potential earning power. Another thought that comes to mind is whether or not the pursued degree is vocational training or not.

    My wife and I are a mixed bag. She attended Steubenville with both Mr. & Mrs. Darwin. I would say she benefited both from a vocational standpoint as well as from the Catholic culture. In fact, she thrived there. I, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t have thrived. I, too, would have been rather irritated by some of the nanny-state aspects of the school. Secondly, I don’t know if any of these orthodox Catholic colleges and universities would have had course studies that fit my interests and career goals (electrical engineer). Many, if not all, of these schools are liberal arts colleges where engineering is an after thought, if it even exists.

    Lastly, I will personally vouch for Texas A&M’s Newman Center. Bishop Aymond (as well as his predecessor Bishop McCarthy) make it a point to assign some of the best priests to this parish. Mass on weekends is packed. Daily Mass had close to 200 attendees (10 years ago), not sure about it now. It’s a vibrant ministry that takes advantage of the rather conservative climate at Texas A&M as well as the university’s roots and emphasis on tradition.

    There are many state-run colleges and universities out there with excellent Newman programs. Visit them during your college visits. Talk to the pastoral team. Feel them out to see if the Catholic faith is authentically taught to the students.

    Big Tex
    Fightin’ Texas Aggie Class of ’99 Whoop!

  10. Jay Anderson says:

    I may send my kids to leave with their grandparents in Virginia or their grandparents in Texas for a year after they graduate from high school so they can get in-state tuition at UVa or Texas A&M.

    I see very little downside to their attending UVa. But there are definite trade-offs to their attending A&M. On the one hand, the solid Newman Center at the school is an attractive attribute. But, on the other hand, THEY’LL BE AGGIES! Yuck!


    Baylor University ’90
    University of Virginia School of Law ’93

  11. Jay Anderson says:

    Obviously, “leave” should be “live”. Even people with real degrees from real schools make mistakes, I suppose (it’s not just Aggies).

  12. Matt McDonald says:

    It’s my understanding that A&M has the record for vocations of any college in the US. All of the A&M grads I know are good Catholics.

    Having said that, it’s a local school, Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula or Christendom College at this point for little Abigail.

  13. jonathanjones02 says:


    As an Aggie class of 02 and of 09, I can assure you that your children will have a great time and be able to plug into a good Catholic community!!

    Have them email or you email me at any time – I am very familiar with many aspects.

  14. Jay Anderson says:


    Thanks, but we still have several years before my kids will be taking that next step. My oldest just turned 7, so we’re a good decade away.

    And for all my good-natured poking of the Ags, my grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, and my cousin all attended A&M. So I do have a little Aggie blood in me. The rest of the family (immediate as well as extended), however, are all pretty much Baylor grads.

  15. Gabriel Austin says:

    Fulton Sheen told parents: “Send your children to a secular university, where they will have to defend their faith. Do not send them to a Catholic college, where they will lose it”.

  16. Big Tex says:

    Baylor… no comment. 😉

  17. Donna V. says:

    Gabriel Austin: I went to Marquette and while it is true I lost my faith there, I wasn’t trying very hard to keep it. My theology classes weren’t terribly inspiring and basketball seemed to be the school’s true faith. But then, I wasn’t seeking out the believing Catholics were were undoubtably present.

    I have a doctor friend who graduated from MU the year after me. He was serious about his faith and his experience of MU was much different than mine was. In college, I would have thought him a “dork” and passed him up for the hip “bad boys” drinking beer and shooting pool in the campus pubs.

    There’s a reason I never married – I had very poor judgement as a young woman and made many bad choices. (And considering the men I dated, I am thankful that I never tied the knot, because my life would have been miserable.) I can’t really blame the environment, because other people in the same environment had better experiences and more sense. Ah, live and learn,….,

  18. o.h. says:

    I attended a big state university (the one that makes it now impossible to countenance sending the Offspringen to A&M), with a campus parish that, at the time, was pretty far from orthodox and had a pastor who was very far off the reservation, and was actually the first person ever in my life to offer me marijuana. So it does sound like every Catholic parent’s nightmare, true.

    But … I was young, newly converted to Catholicism, and quite naive. I didn’t know about the highly questionable activities of our priest until I was nearly ready to graduate, and in fact he helped me greatly with my biggest spiritual problem of anger (anger was a problem with him too, and he was very familiar with the temptations and self-justifications). In the department I was majoring in, several of the most respected professors were committed Catholics, one of whom gave me very direct and solid advice on maintaining intellectual integrity in the context of faith. While the memory of the things done during Masses make me cringe now, years later, at the time I was too new a Catholic to know better, and I made some good and very orthodox friends at the parish–one of whom I still see frequently at my current parish–who nudged me gently towards orthodoxy in doctrine and practice. In the end, I came out of college with my faith in as good a shape as, I think, a parent could reasonably want.

    This isn’t meant to be argument by anecdote, but to suggest that the kind of company a child gravitates toward will most likely determine what kind of faith she leaves college with, particularly at a big enough campus that she can choose her company easily. There are good and bad Catholics, studiers, and partiers on every campus.

  19. Darwin, this is such and important conversation and I thank you for writing. It hits home for us as our two oldest are at Notre Dame and a third one prepares to enter senior year (read agonizing-about-colleges-year) at home. Helping them make a decision–and yet letting them make it–seems to be the thing to do. Easy to say, very difficult thing to do. It takes prayer.

  20. Tito Edwards says:

    I agree with Big Tex and can confirm Jay’s perception of Texas A&M. They are SOLID. I have even adopted the Texas A&M football team as my own (Arizona and Hawaii being the other two) to replace Notre Dame.

    I have visited the campus and yes Big Tex, they still have about 100-200 attend daily Mass. Matt McDonald is correct about the vocations, they are by far above the rest when it comes to answering God’s call.

    Marcel, of Aggie Catholics blog, is the director at the Newman Center and he has a full staff of 24, yes, 24 people on the payroll to work that wonderful apostolate.

    I even met Bishop Aymond and he is orthodox and deeply committed to Texas A&M’s mission towards their thriving Catholic community. In fact, Bishop Aymond is applying the very same template at very liberal University of Texas in Austin and is reaping excellent rewards.

    As far as for me, I nearly lost my faith at the University of Arizona. They’re a mix bag. They have an excellent social program, but as far as orthodoxy is concerned, the priests wear tie-dye shirts and they like to be called by their first name without the ‘father’ in front of their name.

  21. Daddio says:

    Interesting post. Obviously I see the positive social aspect of a protective Catholic environment. I had not really considered the potential negatives of a “too Catholic” education.

    I have a few years to deliberate for my kids, but today, I am leaning towards a very good high school education (likely home schooling) followed by the first two years at community college while living at home. The last two years at a relatively close-to-home public university with a good Newman Center. And probably working part time to assist with tuition and rent and groceries (whether that be an apartment of their own, or still at home).

    Then, of course, on to seminary! 😉

    Seriously though, that “full contact climate of dorm life” is, in my opinion, dangerous and totally unnecessary. The idea that kids should be sent halfway across the country to be independent doesn’t jive with me. It’s fun, but it’s not real life. If college is training for adulthood, they should be studying hard, working, and learning lots of practical life skills from their parents, and receiving guidance and counsel when dating a potential spouse. Their solid high school education combined with discussion around the dinner table and with fellow Catholic students will help them to withstand the inevitable challenges to our faith and world view.

    That will allow me to help my sons make the transition into manhood, and save tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars in the process. If there was a perfect Catholic university within an hour of home and it cost about the same, I’d consider it. But, in my opinion, the “college experience” is overrated, and a good student can learn what he needs to know anywhere, if he’s been taught to do the research and think independently. Besides, most of us need graduate degrees or professional designations to really get ahead. At that level, the quality of the program matters a lot more. For undergad, a BS is a BS is a BS.

    By the way, I would also be fully supportive of trade school or military service after high school. As homeschoolers often say, we’re trying to get them into heaven, not Harvard.

  22. Barbara C. says:

    I somewhat a agree with Fulton Sheen. I lived a fairly insular Catholic life until I went to college…in the Bible belt. It was an amazing learning experience to have to suddenly defend my faith.

    That being said, I think it really comes down to the child. If they go into any college a strong Catholic and with a strong sense of self, it will be very hard to shake them no matter what they are exposed to. If they are luke-warm in their faith or strongly dependent on the approval of others for their sense of self they will have more problems.

    I partied some at my secular college, but at the same time I was very sure about my personal moral limits and stuck to them. At the same time, my B.A. in religious studies gave me a better understanding of my Catholic faith than 12 years of Catholic school, and there were very few practicing much less orthodox Catholics around and the Newman Center consisted of only about 15 students.

  23. Betty Duffy says:

    My husband went to an Orthodox Catholic U. I went to a formerly protestant secular U. He had protective parents. I had relatively liberal ones. He’s a rule breaker, I’m a rule abider–but the bottom line is that we both got in trouble in college.

    Is it temperament? Is it environment? Is it education? Lack of support? Or just sin? No one is impervious to sin and it can happen anywhere, especially when there is a lot of idle time.

    More and more I’m thinking along the lines of State school, live at home, work to pay for it. Gain responsibility while you get your education. Who’s to say kids get to have this uninterrupted four years of complete self orientation? It’s not preparation for real life, and maybe it sets us up for an attitude of entitlement later in life.

  24. The family is on vacation at the moment, so although I’ve enjoyed following the comments I havent’ been able to participate as much as I might have liked. However, one toss out thought:

    I think I’m probably more in favor of the “going away to college” experience than most posting here. But then, I’m thinking of it in the context in which I experienced it: I went through Steubenville on a pretty lean budget, paying via scholarships, work, and a bank account that my grandparents had left me for college expenses. If I’d lost my merit scholarships, I would have had to fill in with debt instead.

    So while I enjoyed (and to be honest had been very restive for) the chance to get some independence, it was a pretty sober independence — not the kind of “here’s some more cash from Mom and Dad, make sure you have a good time on spring break in Cancun” kind of existence that some of my coworkers seem to be financing.

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