Is Catholic College Worth It?

Recently, I was reminded why writers avoid reading online comments on their published work.

I had written a piece about my excitement over the new Great Books program at Benedictine College, where I work. The piece was personal, passionate and heartfelt. But the first comment it received was like a glass of cold water in the face:

"Reading Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine is an excellent idea. But it seems foolish to pay $30,000-plus a year for it when you could do it for free while attending a public research university. And if you need guidance with the books, make friends with a seminarian or theology student."

I answered: "What — and never meet my wife, April? Or be taught by Father Fessio and Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis? No. That wouldn’t work. Literally no expenditure I have ever made was a better bargain."

Now, I want to say more. While his numbers are off — the real costs of private and public colleges are much closer than that — he is right: It is undeniably difficult for families to afford a private Catholic education. In fact, private Catholic college tuition is most difficult to afford for precisely those most interested in it: single-earner families or families with lots of children. And students often graduate from private Catholic colleges with $30,000 or more in debt.

But despite the hardship, a Catholic college education is definitely worth the cost, for reasons both economic and spiritual.

First, economic: The argument being made recently has focused on the "higher-education bubble." The claim is that the cost of mid-level private colleges has risen higher than the value of the degrees they grant. Meanwhile, one can watch the best college lectures — the ones that are worth it — online for next to nothing. At any moment, the market will correct itself, causing a crisis in the college marketplace.

The only problem: Each aspect of this argument is not just old news — it’s very old news. The New York Times’ news archive tells the story.

College tuition rising: "Colleges Stress Rising Costs Increase … Protests on Many Campuses," reported the paper in 1946. In 1953, a headline complained: "School Costs Up 119% in 12 Years."

Trouble paying for college: "Tuition and other costs may appear prohibitive to many parents," warned the Times in 1955. In 1966: "Relatively few people can accept or cope with the spiraling costs of [college] education."

The information revolution: In 1966, the Times said a "college crisis" was looming because of "the fantastic speed with which information and knowledge are accumulating."

The usefulness of a degree: In 1975, a headline reported: "Value of College Degree Held Declining."

College debt: In 1987, the paper warned: "Heavy Burden of College Debt Raises Anxiety for Young Families’ Future."

Today’s "college bubble" articles may just be putting new language to a problem every generation has had to grapple with: College is expensive.

But every generation has also realized that, for those seeking a professional career, college is worth it.

A February 2014 Pew Research Center report on higher education suggests that attendance at a four-year college (public or private) is a better economic bet than it has been in decades. Polling data showed that those who have earned a "bachelor’s degree and more" make an average $15,000 more a year (using constant 2012 dollars) than "two-year degree" community-college graduates. But those community-college alums have only a $2,000 average advantage over high-school graduates.

Yes, college is hard to afford — now more than ever, as federal aid has lagged behind while tuition increases. But to answer the commenter on my blog entry: Even if you look at the bare economics of it, the $30,000 in loans you take for four years of college will be worth it. Yes, you will pay off the loan at $250 a month for 10 years; but you will, on average, make $1,250 more a month over the course of your career.

However, for Catholics who believe in the liberal arts tradition, a college education’s worth is not just a question of a financial return on investment: Attending a canon-law Catholic college is a life-changing experience not just economically, but spiritually.

By "canon-law Catholic college" I mean the relatively small percentage of Catholic colleges that publicly comply with the Church’s higher-education requirements, especially Canon 812 (the mandatum) and Canon 833 ("Oath of Fidelity").

Unfortunately, no studies have been done about the "life outcome" of students at the three dozen or so canon-law undergraduate and graduate colleges in the United States.

But we do know two key pieces of information: First, the college years are some of the most formative in a person’s life; and, second, most college campuses are places you wouldn’t want to be formed by.

Researchers studying the lifetime arc of peoples’ lives find that most people in their 40s, 50s and 60s retain the worldview they developed in their 20s. What worldview do students at most colleges learn?

We hear "horror stories" all the time from students who transfer to Benedictine College. Student-life philosophies and activities at big state universities and noncompliant Catholic universities aggressively challenge Catholic — as well as Protestant, Jewish and Muslim — students’ beliefs about premarital sex, abortion and the definition of marriage.

Ironically, such schools often teach a doctrine of tolerance that adds up to intolerance toward adherents to the world’s major religions.

In fact, one major reason the value of higher education is getting a bad name might be academia’s aggressive promotion of intolerance toward traditional Western ideas and values, in and out of classrooms.

A 2010 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate study found that even students at most Catholic colleges tend to become less likely to support the right to life and far less likely to attend Mass after their four-year stay.

Meanwhile, Catholic colleges that comply with canon law usually comply with the U.S. bishops’ other requirements as well. In the United States, through the application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Blessed John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Catholic colleges are directed to show:

"commitment to be faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church," including in "officially recognized student and faculty organizations and associations."

"commitment of witness of the Catholic faith by Catholic administrators and teachers."

"commitment to provide personal services (health care, counseling and guidance) … in conformity with the Church’s ethical and religious teaching and directives."

"commitment to create a campus culture and environment that is expressive and supportive of a Catholic way of life."

When a school takes the Church’s directives seriously, the result is impressive. Rather than lose their religion, students rediscover their faith on campus or discover it for the first time. At Benedictine, for instance, the students in the campus’ Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program are in the double digits every year.

And beyond just "keeping their faith," students at smaller Catholic programs thrive in other ways. A 2006 Hardwick-Day study compared alumni of Catholic colleges and universities and found statistics backing two phenomenon I have noticed: Catholic college students are more likely to make lifelong friends and more likely to find mentors.

Which brings me back to where I started: The money I spent to go to a profoundly Catholic program for college has paid off enormously. I am still in regular contact with many of the students I met in college. They are successful people, both in financial terms and in human terms. The words of the mentors I met in college still ring in my mind at critical times. Without my Catholic college education, I wouldn’t have the wife I have, I wouldn’t have nine children, and I wouldn’t be dedicating my life to helping more people discover what I did.

Is Catholic college worth it? There is no doubt that Catholic colleges should be more affordable. Attention donors: The best way to do that is through endowed scholarships.

But if it is a truly Catholic, truly academic place, there is no doubt in my mind that it is worth it. If I could do it all again, with what I know now, I would be willing to pay even more for what I received.

Tom Hoopes, a 1990 graduate

of the St. Ignatius Institute in

San Francisco, is writer in

residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.