Crisis on Catholic Campuses? Absolutely!

Lately there has been much discussion — and confusion — about a new study of Catholic college students, showing dramatic declines in faith practice and fidelity after four years at certain Catholic colleges and universities.

Debate has centered on the question asked on the Register’s website: “Is There a Catholic Education Crisis?”

Of course there is. And the new report from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reveals the worst news yet about the state of Catholic higher education.

CARA’s study of 34 colleges and universities finds that, while 16% of Catholic students become more pro-life by graduation from a Catholic institution, nearly twice that number (31%) become more pro-abortion. On homosexual “marriage,” 16% of Catholic students move toward Catholic teaching, but 39% abandon it. About one in eight Catholic students leaves the faith altogether.

Now that’s a crisis!

And it gets worse. While Catholic students tend to move even farther from the faith at non-Catholic colleges, the choice of a Catholic college is not a significant factor when demographic variables (age, sex, family wealth, etc.) are taken into account.

In other words, Catholic students at all types of colleges are falling away from the faith in dramatic fashion … and choosing one of the Catholic institutions in CARA’s study appears to have pretty much the same impact on a student’s faith as does choosing a public or secular private institution.

So why are some media questioning whether there is truly a crisis in Catholic higher education?

CARA deserves much of the blame for how it interprets — spins, really — its own data. For instance, CARA’s concluding sentence states that there is no “secularizing trend among Catholic students attending Catholic colleges.”

Really? Twice as many students turn away from the faith on issues like abortion and homosexual “marriage” as move toward the faith, and 12% of all Catholic freshmen leave the faith by graduation. That’s not a secularizing trend?

Presumably, CARA meant to repeat the more nuanced claim made earlier in its report: After considering demographic variables, it could find no evidence “that Catholic colleges and universities are systematically making students ‘less Catholic.’” But this, too, is a flawed conclusion.

CARA’s analysis compares the impact of Catholic and non-Catholic institutions, which appears to be equal. But to claim that the institutions in its study have no impact at all on a student’s faith, CARA would have to compare Catholic students to young Catholics who do not attend college.

Frankly, it seems preposterous to hold dissenting professors and the typical campus culture blameless for students’ loss of faith. Nevertheless, CARA suggests that Catholic educators are nearly powerless to encourage faith in a highly secular culture.

“Holding Catholic colleges and universities to an unrealistic standard to think they can beat back the broader culture forces and be completely successful is unrealistic,” said CARA researcher Mark Gray to the Register.

I suspect that CARA’s findings would hold up for most Catholic colleges and universities, but one would expect much different results among students at the sincerely Catholic institutions recommended in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College.

While students at wayward Catholic institutions leave the faith, equally large numbers of students at some of the Newman Guide institutions are answering God’s call to become priests and religious. The contrast is stark.

Anyone who has met the graduates of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Christendom College, Thomas Aquinas College or any of the institutions named in our guide cannot possibly accept that Catholic educators today have no hope of bringing students closer to Christ.

For 17 years, the Cardinal Newman Society has known there’s a crisis, and we have worked to both expose the problems and to solve them. The CARA study demonstrates the great need for research that proves the stark contrast between The Newman Guide institutions and secularized universities. We are pursuing grants now to fund this research and set the record straight.

Recently, I have been telling people that the outlook for Catholic higher education is improving — that the Vatican and bishops are urging renewal, and Catholic educators are increasingly inclined toward a mission-centered approach that focuses on student development. I still believe this is true.
CARA has simply helped prove the dismal failure of many Catholic colleges and universities. The success of sincerely faithful institutions will continue to point the way forward.

Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization to help renew and strengthen Catholic higher education.