The Case for Attending a Faithful Catholic College

“The choice of college can be the choice that will dictate where they will spend their eternity.”

The Oratory at Ave Maria University in Florida.
The Oratory at Ave Maria University in Florida. (photo: Fr. James Bradley, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Most high schools, including, unfortunately, the average Catholic high school, educate for college readiness — and most colleges and universities educate for careers, as if jobs are what matter most. 

It takes little more than reading university billboards along the highway to get the gist of the popular agenda. Take for example this University of Phoenix billboard: “An education built toward a career. Total no-brainer.” Or, Clarion University's: “Ready for your first job/Prepared for your entire career/That's Confidence.” 

Fortunately, not all educators and mentors fall into this category. Two brothers, John Olon, Theology teacher at St. Mary's Ryken High School, and Rich Olon, Catholic Youth Director at St. John Francis Regis Catholic Parish, work together to encourage the students in their care to pursue holiness above all else. To this end, the brothers frequently find themselves encouraging high school students to look beyond the obvious undergraduate choices, and consider colleges that will continue their formation as Catholics, and support them in their pursuit of holiness. 


Why it is so important to attend a Catholic College

Many think it unnecessary to attend a Catholic college, especially if they come from a Catholic high school. Yet, while 12 years may seem like enough to put a check mark on Catholic education, John Olon reminds his students that every Catholic needs to continue learning the Faith. At the same time, he points out how adverse culture found in secular universities will be: 

“We live in a culture in which the social norms tend to be implicitly contrary to our Catholic understanding of reality and there is always so much more to learn about our Faith — I'd even say that we are obligated to learn so much more about it.” 

For his part, Rich reminds students and their parents how formative the college years themselves are, and the pride of place which should be given to the study of the Faith: 

“A teenager’s formation does not end with high school graduation, which is why we send so many young people off to college – for four additional years of education and formation. If our goal in life is to become saints and enter heaven, then theology classes become the most important classes a young person can take, because they advance that goal. Why would we end the most important aspect of education, while at the same time recognizing the need for four more years of additional education in other areas — areas that are inferior to theology?” 

Indeed, Catholic high schools would do well to remember that the value of theology surpasses all other classes, and help students discover where they can pursue the Queen of the Sciences further.

“Also,” Rich continues, “this will be the first time that a young person will be living away from home and making important decisions on their own... An 18-year-old goes from living at home with pretty constant supervision and guidance, to living at college with none at all... Peer pressure is the strongest influence on a young person’s decision making. Whether they go to a keg party on a Friday night or get out of bed on Sunday for Mass will be influenced heavily by the students sharing their dorm.”


What makes a College authentically Catholic?

Both Rich and John recognize that not all that glitters is gold. In other words, not every college or university calling itself Catholic deserves the title. Using The Newman Guide to Catholic Colleges(available thanks to the Cardinal Newman Society), they help students and their parents identify Colleges that are faithful to the Catholic Church. Rich suggests considering these questions when determining whether a college is Catholic in name only, or to its core: 

“What percentage of the faculty is Catholic? Does the school have Eucharistic Adoration? A few colleges even have perpetual Adoration during the school year. And most importantly, what percentage of the student body attends daily Mass? I think this last point is the most telling in whether a school is authentically Catholic or not. How ‘Catholic’ can a school claim to be if less than 1 percent of the student body attends daily Mass? There are colleges where half or more of the student body attend daily Mass. I would suggest that families incorporate daily Mass at the campus Church into their college visits and judge for themselves.” 

John frequently recommends Ave Maria UniversityUniversity of Dallas,Benedictine College Franciscan University of SteubenvilleChristendom CollegeThomas More CollegeWyoming Catholic,Thomas Aquinas College, and John Paul the Great Catholic University, all listed on The Newman Guide.


Encouraging attendance at a Catholic college

Students and parents alike may worry that attending a college primarily for faith may leave graduates adrift and jobless. However, withinThe Newman Guidelist there is a variety of colleges and universities providing solid education that paves the way for excellent opportunities. 

John says that he is continually “trying to show them (both students and parents) that they can find what they're looking for at these schools.” 

Rich recommends that “parents talk to admissions and get the statistics directly from them regarding post-graduation employment. Catholic schools not only offer education grounded in truth and faith, but also quality academics and great alumni networking in most fields.” 

These few Catholic colleges offer a stellar education as well as a continued formation in the faith. Add to this the incalculable opportunity to surround oneself with like-minded peers, and possibly friends for life who will reinforce the pursuit of holiness. 

For Rich, this should seal the deal. “Just the thought of your son or daughter graduating college with 15-25 great friends who love Christ and want to become saints should be enough to sell parents on choosing an authentic Catholic college. What good is any degree if a young person loses their soul in the process of obtaining it? When you really think about it – how many young people walk away from the Church and the sacraments, forever, during their college years – the choice of college can be the choice that will dictate where they will spend their eternity. It’s that serious of a choice.”

Indeed, there are a number of studies with alarming statistics, stating that 70 percent of Americans raised Catholic have left the faith, and 79 percent of those who leave do so by the age of 23. That seems to put a lot of pressure on the years between young adults leaving home for the first time, and the age by which most of them have just graduated college. 

Recognizing how critical these college years are, John prompts his students to keep holiness as their priority:

 I promote Catholic colleges only as a part of encouraging the students to seek and discern God's will for them...I just encourage them to look into what they (Newman Guide Colleges) offer and re-evaluate their own criteria for selecting a college, and most importantly, to pray about it.

...Our theology department (at St. Mary's Ryken) and campus ministry concentrate on encouraging the students to pursue the universal call to holiness. In doing so we offer an impressive spiritual direction program(over 1/3 of the student body is in spiritual direction or on the waiting list), vocation discernment (as of this fall we will have 12 men in the seminary for our archdiocese and 2 women in religious life), and encouraging the students to discern where God is calling them to attend college. 

So, we don't really “encourage” kids to attend Catholic colleges, but rather encourage them to pursue holiness and seek God's will and in doing so gently ask them to consider some colleges that they may not have considered.