In a survey of 1.1 million college-bound 1998 high-school seniors, the National Research Center for College and University Admissions found that 32% of those who want a denominational college want one that is Catholic. That was by far the largest denominational preference. About 19% would choose a Baptist college, with the other preferences mixed among a dozen denominations including Lutheran, Mormon and Episcopalian.

That Catholic-seeking population has grown during the 1990s. In 1991, it measured only 26%. Catholic schools have paid attention to the upward trend.

At Barry University in Miami, researchers have found that Catholic students have a 4.4% lower attrition rate than others. “That indicates some sort of positive fit between those students and the institution,” said David Molnar, director of institutional research.

Many colleges, including Quincy University in Illinois, hire national communications firms like Stamats to do market research. The data help colleges refine their recruitment approach in mailings and on their Web site. Stamats, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, conducts an annual survey of thousands of students.

The firm is finding that more colleges are enhancing their Catholic identity as a distinguishing trait in a bustling marketplace, even if religion is not of primary importance to applicants, said Stamats research director Becky Morehouse.

The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., is reasserting its Catholic identity, to good effect. The admissions office reports an increase in the number of students who have made specific positive reference to Catholic identity in their applications.

Partly based on Jesuit appeal, applications to Seattle University have skyrocketed. Michael McKeon, dean of admissions, expects about 2,700 applicants, up almost 50% from last year. The school, the largest independent college in the Pacific Northwest, counts 5,700 students. In the past five years, Seattle University has established an endowed chair on Catholic thought to make sure the topic remains vibrant and up front.

Seizing on the association between the term “Catholic” and the connotation “safe,” about five years ago, Niagara University in New York began to place terms like “Catholic” and “Vincentian” more prominently in its advertising copy. That strategy includes the Internet Web site, the medium of choice for more and more prospective students.

Niagara's home page features a photo with the lofty cupola of the chapel topped by a cross. A sign in front of the building includes the words “Vincentian Fathers” in large print.

In part because of the Catholic focus, applications at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., have been increasing by about 10% per year.

At the nation's largest Catholic university, De Paul in Chicago, Catholic identity is a “good marketing tool,” asserted administrator Brian Lynch. De Paul counts almost 19,000 students.

“The identity plays a role in the decision-making process of both Catholic and non-Catholic students,” Lynch said.

—Ed Langlois