Can’t Go to a Faithful Catholic College? Before a Secular or CINO School, Consider This...

“As far as possible parents have the duty of choosing schools that will best help them in their task as Christian educators” (CCC 2229).

The entrance to Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.
The entrance to Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. (photo: Brother Atticus/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll be upfront here: This is a self-serving article. I teach (nursing) at an evangelical Protestant college – Bethel University, to be exact, the one in Indiana. (There’s another in Minnesota, and there could be others for all I know.)

So, yes, it would be in the best interests of my employer – and, yes, indirectly in my own best interests – if you acquiesce to the gentle imperative in the title above. But just because I’m arguing here for something that benefits me doesn’t mean that it won’t also benefit you – and your kids.

And that’s exactly what I’m going to argue.

We’re well into back-to-school season now, and maybe you recently sent off a collegiate son or daughter to start the new year – maybe even his or her first year. And you did it knowing full well that higher education is in a state of upheaval. In truth, “upheaval” doesn’t even scratch the surface – it’s a nice catch-all euphemism that we use in polite conversation. Whatever your vantage – insider administrators and faculty, or outsider consumers (including prospective students and their parents), or both! – it’s hard to avoid the plain truth that collegiate education is being swamped by forces akin to a tsunami, with smaller, private institutions (like mine) catching the brunt of it, and evangelical Protestant institutions (mine again) being especially hard hit.

Those forces include several potent trends all converging at the same time. First, demographics. It’s simply undeniable that there’s a shrinking pool of teens who want to go to college these days. “When the financial crisis hit in 2008, young people viewed that economic uncertainty as a cause for reducing fertility,” notes economist Nathan Grawe. “Fast forward 18 years to 2026 and we see that there are fewer kids reaching college-going age.” And that decline hasn’t turned around with an improving economy. In terms of raw numbers, college admissions personnel face bleaker demographic terrain every year. What used to be a swollen river of high-school grads has been reduced to a trickle.

That trickle is further reduced when you subtract out the number of college-bound teens who opt for a Christian college experience, for the ranks of those who will have already abandoned their faith by the time they’re ready for college are growing. That means fewer will be interested in an integrated faith-based curriculum, let alone the accompanying lifestyle constraints that campuses like mine employ.

Moreover, fewer and fewer of that diminishing trickle of potential students are looking to go to college at all. A strong jobs market combined with fresh skepticism about the marginal value of higher education is siphoning off many potential students – especially from the expensive schools. Folks are doing the math, and they’re figuring out that the undergraduate route is just not worth the cost up front for some kids, and it’s certainly not worth the burden and headache of gargantuan student debt down the line.

Nevertheless, many parents will still urge their children to go to college, and parents of means will underwrite it, even at list price. Consequently, they’ll want the most educational bang for their bucks, and so they may be tempted to throw their tuition dollars at the big-name schools – the top-notch colleges and universities that offer not only a superior education, but also networking opportunities and prestige. The same logic will be applied by Catholic parents considering big-name Catholic institutions, with the additional assumption that their collegiate sons and daughters might be more likely to graduate from such places with their faith intact.

Well, maybe not, on all those points.

Study after study shows that the marginal advantage of a Harvard or Yale (or Georgetown or Notre Dame) diploma is not nearly as valuable as the price tags would lead you to believe. Plus, when it comes to bolstering faith, Catholic schools seem to be only marginally better than public schools. Moreover, the evidence suggests that even when students manage to stay in the Church while studying at Catholic institutions, they’ll often have adopted attitudes and beliefs that fly in the face of orthodoxy by the time they leave. According to a 2010 study completed by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, “the Catholic student attending a Catholic college or university may be even more inclined to diverge from Church teachings and norms than a Catholic student of lower socioeconomic status attending a public institution.”

What’s a conscientious Catholic parent to do? I mean, we can’t send everybody to Steubenville and Ave Maria, right?

As an alternative, I urge you to send your college-bound children to Bethel – or to any of the other fine evangelical Protestant colleges (that is, “Christian” colleges in common parlance) that offer a solid liberal arts education at a competitive price. The advantages are many; the disadvantages, few. Indeed, for practicing Catholic families, there’s only one major perceived drawback to Christian colleges, so let’s dispense with that first.

Namely, they’re Protestant.

That’s less of a liability than you’d think, and I speak from personal experience. I’ve been hanging around Christian colleges a long time – as a Protestant in my twenties, and then as a Catholic convert when I went back to school (at Bethel, for nursing) in my thirties. Sure, the ethos of these places is decidedly non-Catholic (as you’d expect), but rarely are they overtly anti-Catholic. And the numbers of self-identifying Catholic students at evangelical colleges is going up – it’s simple math. Protestants (and others) might’ve been contracepting themselves into demographic decline a generation ago, but Humanae Vitae Catholics have continued to choose to larger family sizes just as they always have.

Thus, proportionately, there’s simply more Catholic 18-year-olds out there who are heading to college – especially from Hispanic families – and their numbers will keep climbing in relative terms. That’s also true for other populations who tend to have larger families – Mormons, for instance, and the Amish. Homeschooling evangelicals also tend to have larger families, but they’re already sending their kids to places like Bethel. Unless the Amish start flooding the Christian college market, the end result is that Catholics will increasingly become prominent minorities at such places.

But will your kids lose their faith if they come to a place like Bethel? Well, perhaps, but that certainly happens plenty at state schools, and, as we’ve already noted, Catholic institutions only have a slight advantage in this regard. At an evangelical college, your collegians may not have ready access to Mass or the sacraments right on Campus, but it’s highly likely that there’ll be parish church nearby (within walking distance or a short commute) which would relish their presence and involvement.

Besides, at an evangelical school, your kids will be studying the Bible – it’ll undoubtedly be a gen ed requirement – and they’ll be getting a hefty dose of Bible integrated throughout their curriculum, regardless of whatever major they choose. That can only be a good thing! After all, the Bible is a Catholic book – written by numerous inspired ancient authors, yet assembled and preserved by the Church – and so there’s a very real sense in which the foundational mission of all evangelical colleges actively undergirds our Faith rather than detracting from it. Sure enough, your sons and daughters will encounter interpretations of Sacred Scripture that depart from traditional Catholic teaching, but hopefully that will drive them back to Sacred Tradition to gain perspective, and maybe even give them a fresh appreciation for the Magisterium.

And the Biblical focus of Christian colleges is precisely what lies behind the lifestyle standards I mentioned earlier. You’ll find that evangelical schools, as a rule, promote a healthy, safe learning environment and foster a campus culture governed by traditional Christian values. Here’s how the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an association comprising virtually all evangelical institutions, describes this dimension of its members’ shared identity:

We are committed to supporting, protecting, and promoting the value of integrating the Bible – divinely inspired, true, and authoritative – throughout all curricular and co-curricular aspects of the educational experience on our campuses…. We support a coherent approach to education in which the development of the mind, spirit, body, and emotions are seamlessly woven together in the quest not just for knowledge but also for wisdom.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? No place is going to be devoid of problems, of course, but if a given school, no matter what its affiliation, is aiming for what the CCCU describes, it’s more likely to hit it. Aim lower, and you wind up with the dismal conditions that reign on so many college campuses today.

Ah, but what about that “divinely inspired, true, and authoritative” bit in the CCCU statement? Will your kids end up rubbing shoulders with a bunch of Fundamentalists at a place like Bethel? Or sitting at the feet of anti-science Biblical literalists? Not likely. In any case, the Church’s view of Sacred Scripture is pretty much in line with the CCCU’s perspective, believe it or not. “God is the author of Sacred Scripture because he inspired its human authors,” reads the Catechism. “He thus gives assurance that their writing teach without error his saving truth” (CCC 136).

As far as a Catholic understanding of the Bible being “authoritative,” and how that understanding is implemented in academe, we’re still not all that far from our separated brethren. The Council Fathers in Dei Verbum describe the Bible (along with Sacred Tradition) as the “supreme rule of faith,” and insist that “all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture” (DV 21).

Similarly, the “We Believe” statement of Bethel University, which I signed as a condition of my employment there, refers to the Bible as “the unchanging rule of faith and practice.” Period. There’s nothing about exclusively relying on Scripture for doing history or science, and there’s no insistence on a literalistic interpretation of Sacred Writ for settling matters of controversy.

I had no trouble signing the statement – after attaching a brief discourse that further elucidated my Catholic convictions – and I’ve been happily teaching at Bethel ever since.

Admittedly, Bethel is somewhat unusual among CCCU schools in that it hires Catholic faculty at all, and so maybe its campus culture is a tad more ecumenical than most. Regardless, I’m confident your collegians would find a warm welcome at any CCCU institution. Once they’re there, encourage them to be up front about their Catholic identity instead of keeping it hidden in order to fit in. Who knows? Maybe the experience of defending the Church’s teaching at such a place – in the classroom, in the dorm – will strengthen their faith. At the very least, they’ll come away with a greater depth of Scriptural literacy – along with a greater appreciation of the tremendous gifts our separated brethren bring to the Body of Christ – not to mention a superb education grounded in Biblical truth.

What’s more, your tuition payments will help keep gems like Bethel open, preserving a Christian collegiate legacy on the American academic landscape, and (not incidentally) keeping folks like me employed, doing our best to form the next generation of Christian leaders, regardless of their ecclesial homes.

And if you send them to Bethel, please have them stop by my office and say hello. I’ll be glad for the Catholic camaraderie around campus, and I promise I’ll do my best to get them to Mass on Sunday.