A Higher Education: The Importance of Catholic Colleges

Students sit in a college classroom

Catholic colleges that are rooted in mission draw students who want to put their faith into action while they learn.

Four years ago, Rebecca DeBurger, a college freshman, sat in her Common Ground class at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio, “surrounded by all new faces, each asking the same question: ‘What is the point of this class?'” Unlike many of her classmates, it didn’t take her long to figure it out.

“As the semester progressed, we were confronted with ethical dilemmas, exposed to the harsh realities that immigrants face on their journey to the United States, and debated about the impact and inhumanity of imposing the death penalty,” she remembers.

The course changed DeBurger’s life. “I had never felt so small,” she continues. “I began to realize and appreciate that people all over the world and in my backyard face similar life and death decisions daily. I was beginning to put myself in the shoes of others, one class at a time.”

As her professor, I had no idea how this required class was affecting her. A few years earlier, I had helped craft our university’s liberal arts curriculum around the theme of “the common good” and chaired the group, creating the first-year course, Common Ground, as an expression of our mission. Reading student evaluations at the end of the first semester, I realized that many students might not “get it” until years later. Nevertheless, at Mount St. Joseph (the Mount), one of many Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States, we remain committed to this core curriculum and to our mission.

Although public and secular private institutions have much to offer in the way of curriculum, athletics, and professional preparation, Catholic universities cluster similar opportunities around a mission rooted in Catholic identity and the graces and gifts of their founders. What they offer is a values-driven, cohesive educational experience.

Catholic institutions of higher education are focusing on mission and identifying ways that faculty and staff can carry on the vision of their founders, acknowledging the decreasing presence of priests, religious sisters, and brothers on campus. These days, mission is not only a Catholic university concern. Hospitals have missions, as do automakers and fast-food chains. If you work for Nike, for example, you strive “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

For Catholic colleges, the mission statement answers the questions “Who are you?” and “How does this make you as a college different?” explains Sister Karen Elliott, CPPS, director of mission education at the Mount. The words of any mission statement, she contends, are important. “The mission is what we hope to be. Even though we may fall short, we are striving for the fullness of the statement,” she says.

In that mission statement, we acknowledge that we are “a Catholic academic community grounded in the spiritual values and vision of its founders, the Sisters of Charity” of Cincinnati. Although the Mount is a separate entity from this religious order, our values flow from their charism.

According to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), 90 percent of the nearly 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States were founded by religious orders. Many are deliberate about staying in touch with their founders’ visions.

The word charism comes from the Hebrew word nefesh, according to Sister Karen. “It’s hard to find a good translation. It’s your essence, the totality of who you are,” she says. “It’s a passion given to a group of people by the Holy Spirit to do what you have to do. When God enters the occasion, it takes you deeper than you would have been on your own.”

Solid Values

For the academic community at Villanova University near Philadelphia, the charism flows from the Augustinians, according to an article in the 2017 issue of its Heart of the Matter magazine, an annual publication from the Office for Mission and Ministry.

Father Peter Donohue, OSA, as he began his term as president of the university, “recalled that the ‘Augustinian principles of Veritas, Unitas, and Caritas (Truth, Unity, and Love) are the foundation upon which the Irish friars formed Villanova,’ that they remain ‘the ideals that continue to challenge us today, and . . . that will propel us into the future.’

“‘Every decision we make,’ he suggested, is to ‘be framed within these values.’ To avoid being ‘simply words we speak’ or allowed to become some historical artifact ‘engraved on a seal,’ he directed the community to take them into our hands [as clay] and ‘knead them into all that we do.'”

Like the president of Villanova, administrators at other Catholic universities embrace their school’s specific mission. At the Mount, our president, Dr. H. James Williams, makes it clear from his frequent acknowledgment of the Sisters of Charity that he understands how essential their charism is to the identity of our academic community. In speeches and e-mails, he frequently quotes a line from the Sisters of Charity charism statement: “As pilgrims, we pray for the wisdom to know the needs of our sisters and brothers and we dare to risk a caring response.”

But beyond his words, Williams and his leadership team are putting money behind the mission. This year, the Mount announced that 10 incoming freshmen had been named mission ambassadors for the university. These students receive $1,000 a semester, renewable for four years as long as they support the work of campus ministry. Recipients “will serve as leaders of interfaith prayer, assist with student retreat experiences, serve as prayer leaders for our athletic teams, engage in service activities, and assume leadership for other campus ministry events.”

Making Mission Real

While not every Catholic campus has designated mission ambassadors, it’s a goal of administrators overseeing student life at Catholic colleges to embed the mission into decisions affecting students. That’s the hope of Dr. Doug Frizzell, vice president for student life at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. A convert to Catholicism while he was in college before coming to Duquesne in July 2015, he worked at three universities, each affiliated with a religious denomination.

It was when working at a Lutheran college that he felt compelled to “give back to Catholicism,” a decision that led to 15 years at a small Catholic college, then to Duquesne. Frizzell believes that “the mission gives you guidance so that people know who you are.”

Working with Duquesne staff in three centers at the university, Frizzell constantly reminds them to focus on the well-being of Duquesne’s students. His mantra is, “We serve God by serving students so they, in turn, can serve others.”

Integrating the mission into student activities is sometimes a balancing act, he says, recounting an incident a year ago when he intervened with a fraternity to cancel a concert that had already been cleared through other channels before it was brought to his attention.

“The lyrics of the band’s music were inappropriate,” he says. “The students had already put a deposit on the venue and the band, so they were not happy when I told them it would be canceled.”

His conversation with fraternity leaders revolved around a question used as a litmus test at his university for mission fit: “Is it Duquesne-able?” The students agreed this event was not, and they were satisfied when Frizzell’s office reimbursed them for deposits that had not been refunded.

Not all students have to be educated about the value of a mission. Some students enroll in Catholic colleges already in touch with it even though they cannot yet articulate it.

Making a Difference

This was true for Hattie Frana, a 2019 graduate of Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa. Founded by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), Clarke states on its website that its outcomes for student learning “are grounded in a Catholic vision of education, particularly as we express it in the BVM core values of freedom, education, charity, and justice.”

For Frana, these values reinforced what her parents had emphasized over the years: “Help those who can’t help themselves.” With dual majors in history and philosophy, she feels prepared for law school at the University of Iowa, where she began this fall. Although she always intended to be a lawyer, it was during her years at Clarke that she zeroed in on immigration and children’s rights law.

Graduates of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., are seen during their commencement. (CNS photo/courtesy Christendom College)

She points to several experiences that led her “to discover this passion along the way” while she was at Clarke: a class in modern Latin American history, a local screening of a documentary about the 2008 raid on undocumented workers by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Agri Star slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, and conversations with a high school friend, a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy from the Obama presidency.

She remembers telling her DACA friend, “We need more immigration lawyers. Those attorneys are making a difference.”

While at Clarke, Frana was already making a difference in small ways. She volunteered at a local elementary school through the AmeriCorps Partners in Learning initiative, working with students in primary grades to develop reading fluency. She was also active in Clarke’s PB&J group (Peace, Betterment, and Justice), hosting open discussions on timely topics that promote the common good and initiating service activities beyond the two required annually of all Clarke students.

Community through Liturgy

As active as she was, Frana made sure to take time to strengthen her spiritual life by singing with music ministers at Sunday Masses on campus. Although the congregations at those Masses were “not very big,” every Sunday she felt nourished by the homilies from a young priest “who was so easy to connect to.”

Even though most Catholic universities do not require attendance at Sunday Masses, the impact of sharing in the Eucharist as a music minister or as part of a dynamic congregation can be lasting for college students, leading to a strengthening of religious faith and their commitment to Catholicism.

When my eldest daughter, Katie Barkley Lavelle, began college in August 1999 at Xavier University in Cincinnati, she faced more than the typical challenges of first-year students. She moved into her dorm, knowing that her father, who a month earlier had undergone neurosurgery for an aggressive form of brain cancer, might not have long to live. What a blessing that the 10 p.m. Sunday Mass at Bellarmine Chapel on campus became her primary community, a source of support leading up to her father’s death on October 26, and in the months and years afterward.

“By being able to share that time at Mass each week with some of my classmates outside of the academic setting, I connected with them at a deeper emotional and spiritual level,” Lavelle reflects. “Our 10 p.m. Mass community supported each other through deaths in families, relationship struggles, illness, career decisions, engagements, and more.”

As a spouse anticipating the death of my husband, the father of three daughters all in their teens, I was grateful for the support of Katie’s Xavier family and the bonds she formed through those weekly Masses. When she and Kevin married in 2004, it felt right that the nuptial Mass should be where they had formed such a tight community, Bellarmine Chapel, and that the celebrant would be a Jesuit who had been the dean of Kevin’s college, with whom he and Katie had forged a deep friendship.

Walking her down the aisle that July afternoon, I felt the absence of her father, and realized some of the tear-stained faces in the pews acknowledged the same. But there was more joy than sadness in that space because many knew how important that chapel had been to Katie as she grieved her father’s death. Her Catholic university‚ and that sacred place in the middle of campus‚ had been an anchor as she integrated her loss and matured in her faith.

Dealing with the Price Tag

Even if they affirm the value of a mission-centered college, students and parents have to find ways to finance a Catholic college education. That was the experience of Rebecca DeBurger, introduced at the beginning of this article. After her father’s death when she was in high school, “My mom was the only source of income for our family. Having a twin who also wished to attend the Mount meant serious cutbacks at the house. Luckily, we had received a few generous scholarships from high school and a few from the Mount.”

DeBurger’s reliance on financial aid mirrors the experience of many Catholic college students. More than 90 percent of first-year, full-time students in Catholic higher education receive grant aid from the institution, according to the ACCU. Overall, institutional grant aid has increased by 23 percent over the past five years, from $1.4 billion in 2010-11 (in 2015 dollars) to $1.7 billion in 2015 and 16.

Students rarely pay the published tuition at a Catholic college, according to Joseph Smith, chief financial officer at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Although in 2019 Gonzaga’s published tuition and fees were $41,330 per year, that year the average Gonzaga undergraduate student paid $23,109 (tuition and fees less institutional financial aid).

That compares to tuition and fees at neighboring four-year public universities ranging from $7,323 to $11,207, according to Smith.

The choice of a college “is often a very personal decision and financial aid/price is one part of the dynamic,” says Smith. “A prospective student should consider factors such as course of study, majors, research, class size, geography, type of campus, safety, comfort and amenities, mission, legacy, pedagogy, and faith considerations.”

He adds that this choice “should address a more global measure of success, that is to say, where will I have the best chance for short-term (through college) and long-term (in life) success to become the person I hope and aspire to be? And what level of personal investment am I willing to make to that end?”

He quotes Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, former superior general of the Jesuits (the founding order of Gonzaga) in support of this view: “The real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become.”

For DeBurger, who she is becoming is intimately linked to her first semester as an undergraduate in her challenging Common Ground course. “I carry Common Ground with me every day as I interact with patients as a future health-care provider. I will work with my patients toward a common goal of improving their health,” she says. “Common Ground is about working to make strides in our community. It is about taking the time to understand the struggles that our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing and influencing legislation together to better the lives of all.”

DeBurger is convinced that “my Catholic education is invaluable and something I will carry with me forever. The education I received from Mount St. Joseph University nourished not only my mind but also my soul.”

A Brief History

A decade after the birth of this nation, the first Catholic college opened in Washington, DC: Georgetown University, founded by Bishop John Carroll. By 1850, nine more permanent Catholic colleges followed, according to Edward J. Power in A History of Catholic Higher Education in the United States: Mt. St. Mary’s (Maryland), St. Louis University, Spring Hill, Xavier (Ohio), Fordham, the University of Notre Dame (Indiana), Holy Cross (Massachusetts), Villanova, and St. Vincent (Pennsylvania). These institutions shared three goals: to prepare men for the seminary, to support Catholic missionary efforts, and to lay a strong moral foundation for young men.

As with most non-Catholic colleges of the 18th and 19th centuries, Catholic colleges did not admit women. The first four-year Catholic college for women, the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, was founded in 1896, according to Power. By 1955, that number had increased to 116.

Today, about 260 institutions of higher education in the United States identify as Catholic, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Serving 891,000 students, most are small to mid-size, with an average enrollment of about 3,550 students and an average annual tuition of $29,532, according to 2017–2018 data.

A Ministry of Music

Bill Brinzer’s commitment to liturgical music began during his first days on the campus of the University of Dayton. His initial impression from a campus tour, that this was a friendly place, was confirmed during a concert, an “icebreaker” for new students. Several upper class students approached freshmen, hoping to recruit musicians for campus choirs. Brinzer and a new friend, both musicians, signed up. He was hooked.

Over his four years at UD, he played piano and guitar at many Sunday Masses: the 10 a.m., which welcomed area residents, and the 10 p.m., “always packed, mostly with students.” Although Brinzer had declared a major in computer science, he also picked up eight semesters of classes in music theory, ear training and dictation. Once he graduated, he returned to his home parish in Pittsburgh to share his talents.

In what he now recalls as a fortunate turn of events, his father “badgered me to help with music at Sacred Heart Parish,” which was in need of good musicians. During his first music practice, he met a flutist, Marguerite Link. Once again, he was hooked‚Äîon this parish’s music ministry, but especially on Marguerite, who would eventually become his wife.

By the time their first child arrived, the couple was living in Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington neighborhood. The first weekend there, with a new baby, they were “just too worn out” to drive to their former parish, and St. Mary of the Mount was just around the corner. Thus began their long association with the music ministry at their current parish, where Brinzer plays guitar, piano, and the pipe organ and Link plays the flute at least two Masses every Sunday.

Despite the addition of three more children to their family, the couple continues their devotion to the St. Mary of the Mount music group. Both are employed outside the home‚ Brinzer full time, as director of engineering with a Pittsburgh company, and Link part time, as a lawyer certified in mediation and collaborative law.

How do they manage to find the time, with children ranging in age from 18 months to 11 years? Every Sunday for the past seven years, they have hired a babysitter to watch them. The couple count her salary as “a financial contribution to the parish.”

“For us, it’s a steady time each week when we can see each other,” says Brinzer. “We both love music. We met through music. And it’s good service to the Church.”

Today, 20 years since graduating from UD, Brinzer says the values he imbibed at UD remain strong. Through classes beyond his major, he came to respect the Catholic intellectual tradition, which reaffirms “that faith and reasons are compatible.”

“I would name the worldview of UD as both Catholic and Marianist,” he says. “They value individual people, and there’s a strong sense of caring there.”

Although Brinzer could not say for certain how his alma mater defines its culture, he has intuited what the UD website confirms: that in the Marianist tradition “the University encourages its members to collaborate in building community and to join in a quest for a more perfect human society.”

What Brinzer remembers about his years in Dayton is that students were encouraged not to be overly competitive, but to be “cooperative and supportive of one another.”

“I learned a lot about true friendship at UD, how to think about and support others,” he says. “And that’s how I live my professional life, too.”

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