The college search process can be long and intimidating for students. With so many options, it’s hard to know where to begin and what to look for in a sea of schools. Certainly cost, location, availability of academic and extracurricular programs, and size are all factors that ought to be taken into consideration. But is there more to higher education? Could there be?
When looking for rigorous academic programs that educate and prepare students to be successful after graduation, thought should also be given to personal growth that transcends the classroom. So often students look at what job or monetary return on investment they will obtain from their college education without taking into consideration all of the intangible factors that make life more rewarding and purposeful. Students should graduate having learned to be more than just “worker bees,” and the world needs innovative leaders with a purpose and mission for life. And that is what students will find in a Catholic education—one that marries the importance of job preparation with the mission of educating and caring for the whole person.
Set against a rapidly changing landscape where the divide between technical programs and the humanities is becoming ever more delineated, a Catholic education is not only still relevant but more important than ever. Technological advances have forced a well-deserved shift in focus to STEM degrees and job preparation but often at the cost of the individual growth and development of students. In the deeply rooted tradition of Catholic education, students are taught not only how to work in industry but also how to think, lead, and serve their communities.
In an address to Italian educators in May 2014, Pope Francis said, “The mission of schools is to develop a sense of truth, of what is good and beautiful. And this occurs through a rich path made up of many ingredients. This is why there are so many subjects—because development is the result of different elements that act together and stimulate intelligence, knowledge, the emotions, the body, and so on.” At Catholic institutions students are encouraged to embrace both options, to learn a trade and to be challenged to become their best selves.
There is a sense of becoming more and giving back that is fostered by the Catholic tradition, and students are challenged to expand their intellect while also integrating their spiritual and personal lives. Rather than churning out workers who are all alike, Catholic colleges and universities challenge students to differentiate themselves and become agents of change. Students who receive a Catholic education are imbued with values such as service and justice. Service does not necessarily relate only to volunteer or social work (although Catholic-educated students certainly make compassionate and effective social workers as well as computer technicians and engineers). Students can serve their community in whatever way is most meaningful to them. The value of justice can be applied anywhere, from philosophy to politics to battling everyday instances of oppression. Students learn to integrate their faith into all areas of life. Even those who do not identify as Catholic—or as religious—can also find a richer and more fulfilling purpose when they are given the space to grow in a values-driven environment.
Additionally, Catholic institutions are born out of a mission to educate. This means students receive unparalleled attention and nurturing. Schools often tout the clichéd line, “Here you’re a name, not a number.” But at a Catholic institution, that cliché is a fundamental truth. You’re a name, you’re a mission, you’re a part of a community, and you’re a leader. What’s more, you’re you. Catholic institutions would not exist without that singular focus on the individuality and talents of their students. Some students arrive on campus having already served as class officers, club organizers, and community volunteers. There are also students who arrive shy and unsure, just beginning to unfold their wings. No matter how they come, at Catholic institutions, students will be both challenged and encouraged to grow exponentially and to leave more confident in their own identity, purpose, and talents. This growth looks different for each student but is equally meaningful.
Campuses with a monastic presence are uniquely impactful. For example, the Benedictines, a Roman Catholic order, live by the creed ora et labora, or prayer and work. Their structured days of prayer, work, and service set an example for students of how to integrate spirituality and faith with a hardworking and rewarding lifestyle. Students learn discipline from the modeling of the monastic community while also exploring how to integrate and strengthen their own spiritual practice in their daily lives. These values serve graduates well upon entering the workforce. There is a beauty and a truth in that balance of education with faith that is found at the core of each Catholic institution.
Just as in searching for any school, selecting the right Catholic institution is a personal and important choice. While all Catholic institutions are mission-born and values-based, each has its own focus and campus culture. Out of the 247 private, degree-granting Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States, campuses range from student bodies of 1,400 students to around 30,000 students. Disciplines range from Jesuit to Lasallian to Benedictine and beyond, and with each background comes a slightly different focus. Exploring the mission statement and history of a university and visiting the campus are excellent ways to decide which school will be the best fit. One of the biggest questions—that of the cost of a private Catholic education—is also important. The answer can be surprising to students, as the combination of private institutional aid with federal financial aid often makes a Catholic education an affordable choice, all while providing limitless opportunities for students to embrace a meaningful life.
In the same talk, Pope Francis also stated, “If something is true, it is good and beautiful; if it is beautiful, it is good and true; if it is good, it is true and it is beautiful. And together, these elements enable us to grow and help us to love life, even when we are not well, even in the midst of many problems. True education enables us to love life and opens us to the fullness of life.” Rather than looking at higher education purely as a commodity, Catholic institutions allow students to call upon a rich dialectic tradition to enhance and expand their experiencing of the world while strengthening their values and spirituality. There is so much more to a successful future than one reliant on a limited, task-oriented education. This is not to devalue trades, technical schools, and apprenticeships; these are vital to a thriving society and are a great fit for many. What is unfortunate, however, is the “either-or” mentality that encourages students to choose one option over the other rather than embracing their potential in all areas of life.
The national discussion on higher education is absorbed right now with cost, returns, and quantitative ratings. These criteria are extremely important, and institutions should be mindful of student outcomes. But in focusing purely on monetary gains, so much of importance gets lost along the way. Through their Catholic identity, mission, values, and student-devoted approach, Catholic institutions offer students a springboard that serves as a catalyst for personal growth and identity formation in addition to those important returns. The same fervor with which students participate in clubs and activities, religious services and retreats, and the discipline that is necessary to succeed in an academically rigorous setting transcend the educational setting and are applicable in all areas of life. CEOs of tech companies are often reported as looking for applicants who bring more to their team than just knowledge of a job. Technical skills can be taught, but creativity, leadership, and ethics have to be fostered and inspired over time. It is the “something more” that makes great leaders and administrators. Learning a trade is important, but learning to live richly and give fully is even more so.