Choosing A Catholic College, Part I: First Impressions

I think I was reading an article at the National Catholic Register when I was made aware of the book The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College published by the Cardinal Newman Society.  For some reason I felt an urge to check it out even though I never attended a Catholic college, my kids are still at least six years from starting the college selection process, and I never considered pushing them to choose a Catholic College when the time comes.

When the book was published in 2007, there were 224 colleges and universities in the United States that claimed Catholic affiliation.  Rather than profiling each and every one, the Cardinal Newman Society chose their top 21.  They also felt compelled to do a review of Notre Dame since it is the most famous Catholic university in this country, although it falls way short of the standards held by the Cardinal Newman Society for deciding Catholic authenticity.  The main two standards for the Cardinal Newman Society were each school’s acceptance and application of Ex corde Ecclesiae, written by Pope John Paul II in 1990 and their compliance with the Catholic Church requirement that theology professors at Catholic institutions receive a mandatum acknowledging that they are practicing Catholics in good standing.

Several things struck me as I read through the descriptions of the top 8 out of 21.  First of all they are very small.  The largest had an undergraduate enrollment of 1982 as of 2007.  Three of the colleges had undergraduate enrollment in double digits (55, 72, and 92).  I just could not imagine attending a college that was smaller than my high school, and my high school was fairly small with a little less than 200 students.  I’m sure that it makes for an amazingly close-knit community…as long as you get along well with everyone.

Secondly, there was a large emphasis on the Traditional Latin Mass and even the Novus Ordo in Latin at these schools.  This was combined with strict dress codes that required women to wear skirts or dresses at all times.  These two concepts, prominence of Latin Mass and what is sometimes referred to as sola skirtura for women, are hallmarks of very conservative Catholicism and seen as signs of elitism by the less conservative.  I couldn’t help wondering if the Cardinal Newman Press was biased towards these concepts and gave extra points to these schools or if it was just coincidence that the best rated schools embraced the most conservative ideals.

Now I will say that several of these schools put a large emphasis on Latin in general as part of the academic process, and the Mass in Latin would be an opportunity for more practice with Latin in a practical setting.  I can also appreciate the desire for a strict dress code in order to avoid several modesty issues and lend an air of professionalism to one’s studies, but I don’t think this automatically excludes the use of dress slacks for women.  But the whole point of the book is to give people information about orthodox Catholic colleges so that they can make an informed decision about the options.

Most of the colleges seemed really expensive, but I think I was kind of out-of-touch with just how much college costs.  For one thing it has been (gulp) 12 years since I graduated from college, and I attended on a full scholarship.  The average cost (tuition + room + board) for the top 8 was about $23,000.  This is about $7000 more than the estimated in-state cost at my public alma mater (Western Kentucky University) and $5000 less than the out-of-state tuition.

Probably one of the most interesting sections in each review was the one about housing.  The Catholic colleges that had the best reviews had only single-sex dormitories with little or absolutely no opposite sex visitation.  Part of me rebelled at this idea at the mere thought of such a thing.  After all, I lived in a co-ed dorm with 24-hour visitation all four years that I attended college.  I don’t think my behavior in the dorm was that terrible; most of my bad behavior (excessive drinking and somewhat unchaste behavior) happened off campus.

I can see, though, where these schools are trying to “lead their students not into temptation”.  But I can’t help wondering if the very students who would choose these schools in the first place are really facing as much temptation as your average college student or if the housing policy would be over-kill for those who are probably used to strict dating rules at home.  Then again it does prevent students from seeing college as their chance to throw off parental wisdom in addition to parental authority.

More shocking were those that ban televisions, internet, and/or cell phones in the dorms.  One college in the book said that it didn’t have many extra-curricular activities because the academics were too rigorous to allow time for it.  So, I could kind of see banning television to prevent people wasting time.  I could also kind of see the same thing about banning the internet as well as to help keep pornography at bay.  Since many of the colleges take a Great Books approach, I suppose that the internet wouldn’t be absolutely necessary from a research standpoint.  And I certainly got by without my own personal computer with the internet in my dorm room.

At the same time, though, it seems a little over the top.  I can’t help wondering how much of it is to assist with time management, and how much of it is to disassociate  from the rest of the world and keep these young adults in a Catholic bubble.  First of all these are young adults, and I think these policies kind of treat them like little children.  Secondly, the internet and cell phones are primary methods of communication in this day and age.  By banning both in the dorms, the schools are effectively cutting their students off from their family and friends since cell phone plans are usually much more affordable for long distance than land-lines, and e-mail and Skype are free.

The most shocking thing to me about the book was that Catholic University of America was included in it.  In 1997 and 1998 I visited a friend who was attending Catholic University of America.  My first trip coincided with National Coming Out Day.  My friend was part of a group that handed out stickers and balloons on campus and such in celebration.  I don’t know if they were an officially sanctioned campus group, but I don’t recall anyone trying to stop them.  On my second visit I spent the night in a single-sex mens’ dormitory; the oversight was way less than in the single-sex dorms at my state university.  CUA didn’t really strike me as that much different in culture than my state university other than the number of rich, snobby people.  The one theology class I sat in on didn’t impress me much.  But I admit that I had a small and informal sampling of the university and my own biases coming in.

As the title of this post clearly says, this was kind of my first impressions of the book.  It definitely gave me lots of food for thought, and I have hopeful plans for two more posts about it if I get a chance.

Explore posts in the same categories: Books, Catholic Faith, Homeschooling/Education, Philosophy, Religion

3 Comments on “Choosing A Catholic College, Part I: First Impressions”

  1. Kelly Says:

    The guy that started the Cardinal Newman Society is a disgruntled Notre Dame grad. I don’t dislike the CNS, but I think that they can really overemphasize the bad. I’m sure that most of the students there were just “average” Catholics, but there was a decent minority of students who were conservative Catholics. I mean, if you’re sending a kid who was brought up on Baltimore Catechism and homeschooling, they will have the ability to find a like-minded spouse by hanging out at the pro-life club, attending Latin Mass, etc.

    Matt’s concern with so many of those highly rated schools is that they don’t have much in the way of a science program. If you discount Notre Dame and CUA, Steubenville is next largest as far as offerings in majors. I know that they have a nursing program, but I don’t know if they go as far as Chemistry or Physics (and I’m too lazy to look it up at the moment.)

    • barboo77 Says:

      I think what they ended up concluding about Notre Dame is that there are plenty of opportunities for orthodox Catholics to attend to their faith on their own, but someone who is indifferent about their Catholic faith would probably sink spiritually like they would at a secular university.

      Matt makes a good point to about most of the schools not offering career-oriented or applied science majors. The Cardinal Newman Society actually seems to snub its nose at those who want an education directed towards a career goal rather than learning for the sake of being “well-educated”, assuming that if you are “well-educated” employers will just knock down your door to hire you because you are just so smart. It’s like they are going too far in the opposite extreme from those who see college as only being valuable if it is used for career training.

      I know there was at least once college that stated that a lot of students transfer out after two years in order to seek a wider array of majors.

  2. […] The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College by Cardinal Newman Society:  Please refer to this post and this […]

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