Is There a Catholic Education Crisis?

CARA Study Examines Cardinal Newman Society's Findings

CHANGE TO COME? Vincentian Father James Maher, vice president of student affairs at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., welcomes new student Nicole Horan, 18, of Boston, during freshman move-in day. Looking on are Horan's sister Lauren, 10, and her father, Tim.
CHANGE TO COME? Vincentian Father James Maher, vice president of student affairs at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., welcomes new student Nicole Horan, 18, of Boston, during freshman move-in day. Looking on are Horan's sister Lauren, 10, and her father, Tim. (photo: 2009 CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

WASHINGTON — A new study on higher education concludes that there is no “secularizing trend among Catholic students attending Catholic colleges.”

The study, conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA)  takes a fresh look at a 2003 study by the Cardinal Newman Society.

The CARA study was presented at a meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) in Washington in early February.

Authored by CARA’s Mark Gray and Melissa Cidade, it used data published by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, as did the Cardinal Newman Society study.

One finding: 31% of students changing their attitude about abortion move away from Church teaching while 16% move toward it, meaning a net loss of 15%.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, still believes there is a crisis in Catholic higher education. “This is worse news than anything we’ve seen yet,” he said, “because not only does it show significant declines in faith practice and beliefs at Catholic colleges, but the additional analysis CARA performed finds that attending a Catholic college in itself has no significant impact on students’ faith.”

CARA findings on major issues include:

— Same-sex “marriage”: CARA reported, “On no other issue do Catholics move further from the Church — regardless of the type of college they attend — than on same sex ‘marriage.’” Only 16% of those surveyed on Catholic campuses move closer to Church teaching either “somewhat” or “strongly,” while 39% move away from Church teaching. Figures show only one in three Catholics (32%) agree with Church teaching on the issue at the end of their junior year.

— Mass attendance: While 61% attend as frequently as before coming to a Catholic institution, 32% decreased their attendance while 7% increased it. CARA’s conclusion: “This represents a net shift of 25 percentage points away from pre-college attendance levels.” Figures show fewer Catholics decrease their attendance on Catholic campuses than Catholics at any other type of college, public or private.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed (, ACCU president Richard Yanikoski saw that while the loss of faith reflects trends of today’s society, raw data indicates a typical Catholic undergraduate at a Catholic institution leaves “more spiritually intact than if she or he had attended a public or secular private institution, but not nearly as spiritually active as would have been the case a few decades ago.”

Reilly doesn’t share Yanikoski’s optimism.

“The raw data does show the decline in faith is slower at Catholic colleges,” he pointed out, “but not only is that not something to celebrate, but the additional analysis that CARA has provided shows that Catholic colleges in this study are not responsible for the slower decline.”

Then there’s also the decline in Mass attendance — and the figure of 8% who leave the faith entirely. (CARA showed that “students who leave the Catholic faith were already weak in practice or belief upon entering college.”)

Reilly said, “All Catholics should be alarmed that a student’s faith would decline so significantly at a Catholic college even if the rate is slower than elsewhere,” he said, referring to the overall report. “It’s clearly bad news for Catholic colleges and universities that ought to be showing gains and support for the Catholic faith.”

Taking Catholic Identity Seriously

CARA’s research was based on student surveys at 34 Catholic colleges and universities — fewer than one in seven of these institutions. CARA did not know which institutions were involved because of a confidentiality agreement with the Higher Education Research Institute.

CARA co-author Mark Gray noted these restrictions, adding that neither his organization’s study nor the Newman Society study is based on a true random or representative sample of Catholic colleges or universities. “But this is the best data available,” he added.

Still, CARA concluded that even with the study’s data limitations, “More often than not, Catholic students at Catholic colleges are slightly less likely to shift away from Church teachings than Catholic students attending other types of colleges and universities.”

The study raises some pointed questions. William Fahey, president of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimac, N.H., would like to see which Catholic institutions were sampled. He said the results certainly don’t reflect the student body of Thomas More or the institutions listed in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College. Thomas More is one of the Catholic colleges and universities recommended in The Newman Guide ( and in the Register’s College Guide ( that do emphasize spiritual growth and fidelity to Catholic teaching.

Fahey said he knows of no one at Thomas More who has left the faith, much less 8% of students. “There may be,” he said, “but certainly it’s not known, and if so, it’s not 8%.”

“These numbers,” he said of the study’s findings, “cannot be true of any institution that is taking its Catholic identity not as some historical feature but as serious to the intrinsic life of the college.”

Fahey said these statistics are an aggregate, and that listing each college and university separately would clearly show which institutions “take in any way Ex Corde Ecclesiae seriously.”

Yet pointing to results where percentage gains do occur (students at Catholic colleges are more likely to “support more taxes for the wealthy,” for example), Fahey concluded that is “a giveaway” the survey was done at “left-wing institutions.”

Reilly added that his organization is seeking grants to fund similar research on The Newman Guide colleges for comparison to this study. He’s quite certain that that research would show these colleges have a much stronger impact on students’ faith even though the students attending these colleges tend to start already with a stronger faith.

For example, he noted, “Whereas the CARA study finds 8% of students leaving the faith at the 34 Catholic colleges in the study, about 10% of students at several of The Newman Guide colleges go into religious life. The contrast is stark.”

The CARA study is based on surveys administered to students at the beginning of their freshman year and then again at the conclusion of their junior year. CARA concluded the results broadly show Catholic students at Catholic institutions “remain profoundly connected to their faith.”

“The results are remarkable that Catholic schools are very positive, given the broader cultural forces these institutions are up against,” said Gray.

‘Capable of Positive Change’

He noted there’s a general decline in Mass attendance when children leave the household, so it’s a very positive result that Catholic colleges minimize that decrease. In social justice issues, students at Catholic institutions show positive movement toward Church beliefs and teachings.

He said the report “shows that specific issues and behaviors we can look at in Catholic institutions show that there’s greater success in beating back these cultural winds.”

With this latest CARA study in mind, Gray concluded, “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. [But] the study shows they are capable of positive change.”

No matter how the report should be interpreted, its authors agreed with a significant Cardinal Newman Society finding by re-quoting that 2003 study: “Regardless of where students begin their college journey, Catholic colleges should be helping students move closer to Christ, and certainly doing a better job of moving students toward the Catholic faith than secular colleges do.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.