Amid what an award-winning educator calls a “sea change” in higher education, Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio is back in the captain’s chair and launching another ship.

Father Fessio, a former student of Pope Benedict XVI, previously founded the St. Ignatius Institute of the University of San Francisco, Ignatius Press and Campion College in San Francisco. Now, he has brought together Ignatius Press, Angelicum Academy, an online Catholic home-school program that provides online college credit, and Catholic colleges on three continents to establish the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program. A combination of home study, distance learning and online classes, the Liberal Studies Program offers a Catholic liberal education and up to two years of college credit for students 14 and older — home-schoolers, traditional high-schoolers and others.

Father Fessio, who last summer was dismissed as provost of Ave Maria University after a dispute over administration policies, will be chancellor of the new program, which begins the first week of September.

“It really addresses a need of these students and their families that really want to get a Catholic education but can’t afford to or don’t want to take on the debt,” Father Fessio said. “This is for them to solve that problem, and not just solve it, but improve on what they would do otherwise.”

The program’s cornerstone is Angelicum’s Great Books Program, a study of the great literature of Western civilization and an approach championed by philosopher, educator and Catholic convert Mortimer Adler. Study will be augmented by the Ignatius Critical Editions series and study guides providing tradition-oriented criticism of the great books.

The Liberal Studies Program comes during a tidal change in higher education, said Angelicum Academy’s president, Patrick Carmack, who in 2009 received the International Etienne Gilson Society’s Pope John Paul the Great Thomist Humanist Award for his work in education.

“Most people that I’ve spoken with are conscious of the sea change in our education toward distance education,” said Carmack, whose Angelicum is a decade-long provider of home schooling and other liberal arts resources. “And it is a sea change. It is the most rapidly growing sector of higher education, including Catholic education. That’s largely due to financial considerations.”

Common Concerns

Father Fessio and Carmack had discussed a partnership as long ago as 2007, but they didn’t begin planning the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program formally until last November. It addresses the rising cost of education Carmack cites, but also the dearth of great books-based education — and what Father Fessio sees as subpar Catholic colleges.

Faith comes first, they say, but financial burdens cannot be ignored. While Father Fessio recalls paying for his college room and board by working a construction job during summers, that’s just about unheard of today.

“The cost of education continues to rise so much more quickly than the cost of living,” he said.
Carmack points to government-guaranteed loans as one culprit. “Colleges responded to that by increasing tuition because they knew it would be covered by the government,” he said. The rising number of baby boomers in college also increased price by increasing demand, he added.

A Liberal Studies Program press release points to an average per-year cost of $26,273 for private college tuition and fees — more than $100,000 for four years. But online-only programs like the Liberal Studies Program are not burdened with costs for building and maintaining a physical campus, extensive staff, athletics, etc. The release notes that with a coordinated course of study through the program and its affiliates in the Universities of Western Civilization network of cooperating colleges, students can obtain a bachelor’s degree with an accredited college for as little as $26,600. The Liberal Studies Program also offers family tuition discounts — 50% for students from one family after one enrollee.

“Distance education is radically less expensive,” Carmack said.

The program’s formation also addresses academic issues. Because of the high cost of education, Father Fessio said, some students forgo education at private institutions or first attend community college for two years to satisfy general requirements.

“That’s just backwards,” Father Fessio said. “The one thing a Catholic university has to offer are the foundational liberal arts. Those first two years of a Catholic college are the most foundational.”

The Liberal Studies Program will offer the foundation of a liberal arts education by using great books to study the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, etc. Carmack said 37 colleges have great books programs but that no high school has made college credit available for it, something the Liberal Studies Program now can offer. Angelicum has been offering a great books program for 10 years, and last year had more than 100 students enrolled. Study will be augmented by Ignatius Press study guides.

Each class has two faculty members, at least one of whom has a Ph.D. Carmack said a waiting list of educators interested in joining the faculty is growing.

Father Fessio said the program also hopes to offer students in-person meetings with professors, perhaps a week to a month long.

College-level theology coursework also is in the works. Father Fessio said he has been discussing partnerships between Ignatius Press and My Catholic Faith Delivered, possibly for credit at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.

Currently, Liberal Study Program students can earn up to 48 hours of credit. That could expand to 60 to 64 credits with a theology component. Credits currently are accepted at Benedictine College, Campion College in Australia, St. Bede’s Hall in Oxford, England, and other colleges in the Universities of Western Civilization, a network of colleges that accept pre-college studies completed while home schooling or in high school. The American Council on Education also recommends Liberal Studies Program credit, which other universities and colleges are free to accept or reject.

Finally, the formation of the Liberal Studies Program addresses a faith component. In a press release, Father Fessio estimates that there are only about 10 “truly excellent Catholic colleges … to transfer into.”

Hoping to join that short list, the Liberal Studies Program touts its faithfulness to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

“There’s no question that it’s a Catholic program,” Carmack said. “And we’re not going to exclude non-Catholic students, of course. We hope we can reach as many people as possible.”

High Hopes

Just how many people the Liberal Studies Program will reach won’t be known until late July or August, when enrollments start to arrive, Carmack said. “We anticipate a great many more, but have no idea,” he said. “One of the benefits of distance education is you can add classes very easily.”

Father Fessio, though, said Carmack told him that interest via phone calls and Web visits is “four times or five times normally what he’d get.”

That in large measure likely is due to the marketing reach of Ignatius Press. It’s one of the reasons why Angelicum’s partnership with the publisher made sense.

“Ignatius Press is in the business of selling good products, mainly books and films,” Father Fessio said. “But we have a network of marketing and promotion and distribution, and so it worked for people here to put together the advertising.”

Carmack is hoping the payoff is profound.

“Really what we’re after primarily is an excellent Catholic great books education,” Carmack said. “Secondarily is to make it more widely available than it is and more widely affordable.”

All aboard.

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.