Archbishop Timothy Dolan knows something about higher education.

He has served as rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome; professor of Church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University; vice rector of Kenrick-Glennon seminary in St. Louis, and theology professor at Saint Louis University.

Since 2002, he has been archbishop of Milwaukee, Wis., where several Catholic universities are located, including Marquette.

Archbishop Dolan spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake on Sept. 15 from Baltimore.

Do parents ever come to you expressing the difficulty that they have in choosing a Catholic college or university?

Yes, parents and students, often juniors and seniors, will ask me about particular schools. Sometimes they will ask, “Do you know about this school?”

When they are doing so, they aren't asking me about the food or the athletics. They are asking me about the Catholicity of the school, and I am delighted that they do.

Sometimes they will ask me which schools I would recommend. I get those questions often, and am moved and inspired by the number of parents that want to find out the integrity of a Catholic college's integration of the Church's teachings. That's a good thing.

Is there anything that you recommend discerning parents should do?

There seem to be a couple of things that parents can do. They can scrutinize what the institution puts out and ask whether something is as valid as it should be, but that can be pretty self-serving.

Word of mouth and anecdotal evidence is often very helpful. If a parent asks me about a particular school, I will say, “Why don't you call so and so.” Parents can also go to the school. They should not be afraid to ask pointed questions.

When parents ask me about the Catholic identity of an institution, I encourage them to be broad-minded in the best sense of the word. Sometimes when they speak of an institution, they may have a particular theologian in mind. We have to be rather inclusive. When you talk about the validity of the Catholicity of a college we need to look at several things.

What would those be?

First, look at the theology department. Look at the syllabus. Ask about the mandatum. See if they teach the essentials of the Catholic faith.

Secondly, I'm surprised by the number of parents who don't look at the availability of the sacraments and the devotional life on campus. Make sure that it is there. Look at the student chaplaincy. You might have a campus where a theology department looks excellent, but where Sunday Mass isn't held on campus some Sundays.

Third, we are training character and apostles, so look for works of justice and mercy. Is there a pro-life movement on campus? Does the school offer outreach to the poor? Is there sensitivity to social-justice issues?

Fourthly, and this one is the most nebulous and hits a chord in most parents: Get your radar out early on the Catholic ethos on campus. Can you sense a climate? Will it be a kind of campus that is supportive of your child's faith? Is it a place where a child will grow in their faith and their character? Is it a college where they will find support rather than ridicule? You can sense that.

When you're on campus, are there religious signs? Is the chapel visible? Are there Catholic books in the bookstore? Are there religious events advertised on campus? Are Mass times displayed publicly?

People might complain, for instance, about a particular professor at Notre Dame, but I have never heard anyone deny that there is a tangible Catholic ethos on the campus of Notre Dame University. You know when you're at a Catholic place. There are other places where you would not sense that.

Do you think that a tool would be useful to help discerning parents?

I would find some type of tool or gauge that parents could use helpful. When you have a report card, some schools will do better than others. I would find a tool helpful if it took those four things into consideration: Look for a theology department that is faithful. Look for an active sacramental and devotional life. Look for opportunities for apostolic life, and a tangible, evident Catholic culture.

Tools often focus only on one, often the first. To leave the other three out would make a tool less than helpful.

Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.