Choosing a College: A Parent’s Guide

Now that we finally have a product of a Catholic institution of higher learning in the White House, the question What makes for a good Catholic education? is more pressing than ever. Through the years many parents have asked my advice regarding the choice of a Catholic college for their child. Their concern is hardly surprising given what is at stake, particularly after the dramatic changes that have taken place in these institutions in the last 30 years. And, as the late Herman Kahn once said, there are only two times in life when one’s ideas, attitudes, and convictions are radically altered: before you are six and when you go to college.

In my own pastoral work with college students, and especially in that which pertains to religious belief and behavior, I have found Kahn’s observation to be true. The choice of a college for one’s child should be an overriding concern of any Catholic parent, given the important transition between the teen years and young adulthood, from dependence to responsible independence. In addition to character formation that will determine the question of happiness or unhappiness both in this life and the next, there also is the financial question.

During the four years of undergraduate education, parents will be shelling out up to $100,000 on tuition, fees, room and board, books, clothing, and so on. This large sum could easily be invested, spent, or given away in a manner of real benefit to the Church, society, or one’s own family. Prudence would dictate that such an important decision be preceded by a serious period of what on Wall Street is called “due diligence.”

I think it important at the outset to point out what I do not consider the principal criteria in choosing a Catholic college, to wit: a pretty campus, good food, athletics (participation in the NCAA “March Madness” or New Year’s Bowl games), famous alumni, social life, success in sending graduates off into the professions, the understandably biased opinion that alumni, faculty, and administration members have about their own institution, and so on. These may or may not be useful criteria in selecting a university to attend, but they are not related to what makes a college Catholic. I have found through the years a surprising amount of hopeful self-deception about the Catholicity of colleges. This is true for any number of reasons, most of which are related to a “The Way We Were” nostalgia concerning pre-Vatican II Catholicism. On the other hand, there also is a general sense of despair about sending the kids anywhere for four years of college without seeing them lose their faith or their moral compass.

I also want to point out, lest I be judged as unduly critical, that the United States has had the largest network of fine Catholic universities and colleges of any country in the history of the Church. These institutions had an admirable record — in some cases for close to a century — of providing coherent, faithful education and formation to millions of Catholic men and women, preparing them for their all-important roles as fathers or mothers and citizens. They were staffed by tens of thousands of dedicated men and women, clerical, religious, and lay, to whom great glory and credit is due.

Check With the Church

Often the first place to look for basic criteria in choosing a college or university is, surprisingly enough, the Church herself. In a recent decree from the congregation of Catholic Education entitled Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II, a noted university man himself, laid out what the Church expects of institutions that label themselves Catholic. Pick it up and read it thoroughly; then apply it to the colleges in which you are interested. In the document, the Church applies its perennial wisdom to the contemporary scene and provides a sure guide for distinguishing private whimsy from authentic teaching regarding the university. After all, who could know better than the church which gave birth to the university? Indeed, it is safe to say that those institutions that ignore this authoritative teaching eventually will lose their Catholic status both de facto and de jure, a process that will resemble the secularization of so many formerly Protestant universities in the United States.

At the heart of a truly Catholic university will be sound theology department which, as befits the “Queen of the Sciences,” should be considered the central department of the university. Apart from the competence and academic qualifications of its members, there is the all-important question of whether it is in fact loyal to the teaching authority of the Church. The majority of Catholic colleges have a two-or three-course requirement in theology for its undergraduates, who presumably will consider the teaching of their professors as authoritative. A college that habitually tolerates teaching that is at odds with the Church’s teaching forfeits the name Catholic in any real sense. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain what type of theology is taught at any given school. Ask the authorities if the criteria of the “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have been applied to its theology faculty, and if they have taken the recently reformulated oath required of them. A list of the on-campus speakers during the last academic year who dealt with themes concerning Catholic doctrine and morals would also be revealing. After all, why should your tuition money support the dissemination of opinion antithetical to Catholic teaching? Another good indicator is simply to probe the knowledge of any recent graduate. A few pointed questions will quickly reveal what he knows and where he stands with regard to the Church and her teaching. Finally, if the university harbors any well-known “dissenters,” the case is closed.

A Catholic university should have a philosophy of education that places emphasis on a well-rounded liberal arts education centered around a core curriculum, that is, it must believe that ‘there are areas of knowledge which should be common to all students in the areas of literature, philosophy, music, and art. If the university views itself merely as a place that prepares students for a career rather than a place that prepares them for life and gives them a deep appreciation of knowledge as an end in itself in the natural sphere, then it disqualifies itself as anything other than an academic supermarket.

A good place to search might be the National Review College Guide (written by two Catholic gentlemen) which spotlights several Catholic colleges whose educational philosophy reflects Christopher Dawson and Cardinal Newman rather than those of John Dewey or Richard Rorty. After coming up with your “short list” of universities, spend some serious time with the colleges’ catalogs in order to examine not only their philosophy but their curriculum and requirements. Be sure to read the colleges’ mission statement (if they have one). If you encounter words like standard, belief, maturity, conviction, commitment, marriage, family, evangelization, culture, character, truth, and knowledge, take a closer look. On the other hand, if you encounter words and phrases like values, openness, just society, search, diversity, and professional preparation, move on.

What of Formation?

A close look at the emphasis on religious practice and formation in campus life will help determine the Catholicity of the environment. I am not referring here simply to religious statuary or saints’ names on buildings, which may simply be relics of a bygone age. The state of the college chaplaincy can be a strong indicator. What percentage of the student body and faculty is Catholic? What percentage practice their faith in the traditional sense of weekly Mass and (at least) yearly confession? Does anyone on campus know or care? Is the emphasis placed on catechesis, formation, practice, and evangelization rather than on “social justice” and “community building”? Are a significant number of students responding to the call of the priesthood, religious life, or other forms of total dedication in the world?

Naturally a college will be as Catholic as the people who direct it, whether it is run by the diocese, a religious congregation, or dedicated lay people. If it is directed at least nominally by a religious congregation, what is its condition? Are there vocations? What percentage of the faculty is made up of members of the institute? Are they noted for their loyalty to the Church, not just historically but actually? Do they wear their religious garb on campus (and not just on parents’ and alumni weekends!)? Is there an openness to the variety of spirituality in the present-day Church, particularly to the lay movements and institutions that are providing so much life in this historical moment? Or does there exist a “turf” mentality or downright hostility to other spiritualities and institutions approved by the Church?

Be sure to talk to a cross-section of recent graduates. Are they well-educated by your standards, with an appreciation of the finer things of mind and spirit? Are they the type of young adults (and not arrested adolescents) that you would like your children to emulate? Is the practice of the faith what gives central meaning to their life, or is it simply accidental and to be sloughed off when convenient? In short, are they Catholic first and American second or vice-versa?

The Sense of Home

For those students who are not commuters, living arrangements are of the highest importance. Do the college dormitories at the school you are examining have basically the same rules and regulations, moral tone, and adult supervision that you would wish for your college- age child if he were living at home? Are the dormitories places where character can be built and where virtue can grow, be practiced, and, if need be, protected? This is not a question of turning a college residence into a cloister, but rather of assuring an environment where young men and women can live as Christians without being subject to unnecessary temptations and provocations. Are the dormitories single-sex? Or is that at least an option? Throwing hundreds of young men and women together in close quarters produces inevitable and natural results, most of which — in the best-case scenario — do not prepare them well for Christian marriage and which — in the worst case — cause irreparable damage. If you dare, spend the night or even a day or two living in a dormitory. In my experience, most parents do not want to believe the atmosphere of hedonistic immaturity and boorishness that reigns in these places. High spirits are one thing; animal behavior raised to an art is another. Remember, it is your child that you may be placing at moral and physical risk. Are there abortion referrals and contraceptives dispensed on campus? Is the college unequivocally pro-life, or is there waffling and double-talk on the most important question of our time, the sanctity of life from conception through natural death?

Are there authentic Catholic universities and colleges in the U.S.? Yes, but they are far fewer than might appear at first glance. Some of the above criteria should be a help in identifying them — along with your own additional criteria which I may not have even touched upon. But do not be fooled by those who purport to be Catholic and whose livelihood and retirement depend on protecting this fiction. Nor should you fool yourselves into thinking that you are sending a son or daughter to a Catholic institution if it does not live up to the Church’s standards.

I write this from the perspective of a priest who revels in the work of catechesis and evangelization in exotic pagan and secular mission territories such as the Ivy League. Secular universities have many problems, but claiming to be Catholic is certainly not one of them. If you can’t find the right Catholic college, send your child to the best possible secular university — taking into account cost and the student’s academic ability — and encourage your child to bring his belief and practice as a Catholic to bear on his studies and friendships. Who knows, with the passage of time — perhaps decades or less — we may Catholicize the secular universities. “The Pontifical Princeton University” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

  • Rev. C. J. McCloskey III

    Fr. C. J. McCloskey III is a Church Historian and a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. After and while earning a degree in economics from Columbia University, he worked for two major firms on Wall Street. Visit his website at

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