A study released by the Cardinal Newman Society indicates that one fruit of faithfulness at Catholic colleges is affordability. But one Catholic education administrator says the study isn’t comparing the right fruits.

On Feb. 18, the Newman Society, a Manassas, Va.-based organization that works to renew and strengthen Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities, published a commissioned report comparing the affordability of 20 colleges identified as “most faithfully Catholic” with other Catholic and private colleges. The former were identified in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College: What to Look for and Where to Find It. Facets such as tuition, institutional aid and student debt factored into overall affordability.

The Newman study indicates that those colleges it recommends (based on quality of education and priority placed on Catholic identity) are more affordable than the roughly 180 other Catholic and private colleges.

“We are hearing both from Catholic families and Catholic colleges that students who have chosen particular colleges are increasingly finding it difficult to pay the tuition,” said Patrick Reilly, Cardinal Newman Society president. “That’s probably going to get worse over the next year or more, and declining tax revenues mean that even public universities will be more expensive.

“More than ever, there has to be a good reason for paying private college tuition, and faithfully Catholic colleges offer a compelling reason for doing so — at generally less cost than other institutions.”

Among the findings Reilly touts:

n Average tuition for students at Newman-recommended Catholic colleges is about $3,000 less than at other Catholic colleges and about $1,000 less than at private colleges.

n  Newman-recommended colleges on average provide students a larger portion of institutional aid (39% of tuition) than other Catholic (36%) or private colleges (29%).

n Students at Newman-recommended colleges graduate with less debt — on average, about $2,000 less than at private colleges and $1,400 less than at other Catholic colleges.

Andrew Gillen, research director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, conducted the study. Gillen compared colleges using data mostly from his center and the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System, a U.S. Department of Education database. Data were examined beginning with the 2000-01 school year through 2008-09, and most comparisons were weighted by college enrollment. In some comparisons, data from four to six of the Newman colleges were excluded because they opened at various times after 2001.

During the nine-year period studied, tuition per student increased by roughly $5,000 at all types of colleges. Estimated average tuition and fees for 2008-09 was $24,119 at Newman-recommended colleges, $27,138 at other Catholic colleges, and $25,158 at private colleges.

How does that get paid? Average tuition at Newman-recommended colleges in 2005-06 (the last year for which all data were available) was $19,481. Of that, non-financial aid funding covered 41%, institutional grants 39%, loans 13%, state or local grants 4%, and federal grants 3%. Average tuition was $22,118 at other Catholic colleges and $23,093 at private institutions.

Apples and Oranges?

However, Richard Yanikoski, the president and CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, isn’t sold on the study’s merits. Yanikoski said the study does not compare the Newman colleges to institutions of comparable size and character.

“Comparing sets of institutions by using average figures works best when comparing apples to apples — not when the sets of institutions differ in fundamental ways,” he said.

He cited three such examples:

• Newman-touted colleges include only one research-intensive institution, where undergraduate costs tend to be higher because of larger libraries, laboratories and other facilities.

• Almost half of the Newman-recommended institutions had less than 700 undergraduates and only one had more than 2,600. The other Catholic colleges included a significantly larger proportion of bigger schools. “Costs tend to be higher at larger institutions because they offer a greater array of services than smaller institutions,” said Yanikoski.

• Newman-recommended schools tend to concentrate on the liberal arts, which are less costly to teach than disciplines such as engineering, clinical nursing, lab sciences, etc., which are more common outside of the Newman set.

Yanikoski, who discussed the study with Gillen, also said that Newman-recommended colleges themselves vary so widely in price (from $10,750 to $30,103) “that comparing averages is of relatively little use to families concerned about affordability.” He also said that more than 75 Catholic colleges and universities have tuition prices below the Newman group average and that only 20 non-Newman-recommended Catholic colleges have tuition higher than the most expensive recommended college.

“Students seeking an affordable education at a Catholic college or university have ample opportunities to do so at a very wide spectrum of institutions,” said Yanikoski. “I see no obvious tie between faithfulness as defined by the Cardinal Newman Society and lower tuition. The fact that there are huge price variations among the CNS-touted institutions — all labeled faithful — suggests that other causes explain low or high tuition.”

Looking for Good Investments

Reilly agrees with Yanikoski on some points. “We clearly are not comparing apples to apples,” he said. “That’s the point. The Newman Guide colleges are generally much more focused on the liberal arts, personal and spiritual development, maintaining a strong Catholic identity, and preventing nonessential expenses from forcing students into extraordinary debt. We recommend them for a reason, and Catholic families will appreciate the clear differences.”

Reilly also said that since the study data were weighted by institution size “it looks at costs for the average student in each comparison group, and Dr. Gillen has ensured that tiny colleges are not treated equally to large universities.”

Among the Newman-recommended institutions is Thomas More College in Merrimack, N.H. The college issued a news release following publication of the Newman study noting that its tuition, $13,200 in 2008-09, was lowest among its peer institutions and many state schools. Tuition includes a semester of study in Rome for sophomores.

While the economic downturn has led to a spike in financial aid requests at the college, it has also had its benefits.

“When money is tight, people tend to look more closely at the investments they are making,” said Charlie McKinney, Thomas More vice president for institutional advancement. “When they look at all that Thomas More College is offering through its rigorous curriculum, spiritual formation, and the various internship opportunities that help them secure their first job, they realize that Thomas More College is one of the strongest investments they can make.”

The proof is in the paper — there currently are more applicants at Thomas More than in any previous year.

“We believe that this is due largely to the fact that we have become much better at marketing why we are unique among orthodox Catholic colleges,” said McKinney, who said tuition in 2009-10 is increasing by $1,000.

Reilly ties such affordability to faithfulness. “The secret appears to be a consistent emphasis on core objectives,” said Reilly. “It stands to reason that a college that has drifted from its own mission statement and that attempts to serve every career orientation might also be less disciplined in its spending.”

Another resource, the annual National Catholic Register and Faith & Family College guide, appears online at NCRegister.com, under “Resources.”

“All Catholic colleges will argue that their Catholic identity compels them to have great concern for those who cannot afford escalating college costs,” Reilly said, “so The Newman Guide colleges’ particularly strong identity must have a real impact on financial aid policies and tuition rates.”

Anthony Flott writes

from Papilion, Nebraska.