Twenty Questions and Answers About Selecting a Catholic College


"I now tell parents that they should send their children to one of the growing number of authentic and faithful Catholic colleges, those recommended in this book, which will provide a student with a true Catholic education." Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R.

1. What is the special value of a Catholic college education?

A faithful Catholic college provides an open and healthy environment for serious consideration of ideas without the tyranny of harassment, political correctness or enforced relativism. The same cannot be said for many secular institutions.

At the colleges featured in this Guide, students will also find a vibrant Catholic culture on campus that respects Catholic moral teaching and offers numerous opportunities for spiritual development. Although every campus varies, differences from the typical secularized Catholic campus might include a more active Catholic campus ministry, respect for Catholic values in areas including residential life and campus programs, active pro-life and social justice efforts, community outreach programs, Catholic study groups, etc.

2. Can I get a good education at Catholic colleges and universities that are not included in this Guide?

This Guide represents the Catholic colleges that we were able to identify as placing a premium on their Catholic identity in all aspects of campus life. They also provide a good education. Among those colleges not included in the Guide are some with strong academic credentials but that do not have, in our opinion, the same commitment to Catholic identity.

The opportunity for strengthening spiritual formation during the college years is enhanced where Catholic teachings are constantly reinforced. We believe that the best combination of spiritual and academic commitment is reflected in the colleges recommended in this Guide.

3. What is Ex corde Ecclesiae?

It is the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic higher education issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990. The document, which is available at, identifies what constitutes Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities and specifies General Norms to achieve a Catholic mission. These Norms are binding on Catholic colleges as an application of Canon Law.

In 1999 the U.S. bishops approved guidelines to implement Ex corde Ecclesiae in the United States; these became effective in 2001. Compliance by the U.S. Catholic colleges and universities varies widely. Clearly, a Catholic institution that minimizes or subverts Ex corde Ecclesiae, which has the force of Canon Law, has serious problems with its Catholic identity. All colleges recommended in this Guide enthusiastically support and abide by Ex corde Ecclesiae.

4. What is a core curriculum?

A core curriculum is a body of courses that is required for all students. Generally, these reflect a traditional liberal arts perspective. Some colleges' core curricula encompass the entire four-year program, while others reflect only a limited number of courses.

The importance of a core curriculum, in our opinion, is to ensure that students are adequately exposed to the Catholic intellectual tradition through theology, philosophy and other disciplines. As a rule, the larger the number of such required courses, the better the curriculum is likely to be in forming the student's thinking as a Catholic.

Sometimes a college may allow some flexibility within the core curriculum, allowing, for example, a student to choose among various theology courses. This may or may not be desirable depending on the choices available. In the main, the best situation would seem to be where students are exposed to as large a number of strong, orthodox Catholic courses as possible.

5. How is a core curriculum different from a Great Books curriculum?

A Great Books curriculum prescribes that students be taught the classical works of Western Civilization, generally through direct reading of the texts and discussing them and writing about them. A Great Books program can be secular in nature, but those identified in this Guide are not.

Those who promote a Great Books approach at Catholic colleges see it as an unfettered way to present the Catholic intellectual tradition, because they take the position that the great classics are intertwined with Catholic thought.

A Great Books program tends to be rigorous and can be an outstanding opportunity for serious students seeking a broad liberal arts degree. Such an approach, however, is not for everyone – for instance, a student who is seeking specialized courses in a traditional college major.

6. I consider myself more a "doer" rather than a "thinker." Should I avoid colleges that place a premium on theology and philosophy courses?

No, that would be a mistake. Everyone should be concerned with "First Things" – the natural and supernatural truths that lie at the root of all knowledge and activity – and the best way to do so is to understand what they are and how to address them. You would shortchange yourself by avoiding these academic areas. For a fuller discussion of the importance of philosophy and theology, please read Professor Kreeft's essay at the beginning of this Guide.

7. In identifying a college, should I place a greater emphasis on a well-rounded education or on training for a career?

This is a raging debate in education circles. Historically, colleges were established to teach people to read the Bible, perhaps even to become clergymen. Another consideration was that students be taught enough of the classics to be good, productive citizens.

The focus on education, including higher education, has shifted. There is a certain enthusiasm for courses and majors to be "relevant." To a large extent, we as a society are the poorer for it.

We encourage students to direct their educational priorities in this order: (1) broaden your understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition; (2) develop a greater appreciation for writers and thinkers who have influenced Western thought, including prominent Americans; and (3) sharpen your reading, writing and other intellectual skills to eventually take an active role in society.

That's why a core curriculum is valuable; it helps direct you toward learning what is essential for you to lead a rewarding life as a Catholic in a democratic society. If you don't learn these basics in college, you are unlikely to learn them later in life.

8. How important is accreditation?

Accreditation is very important. Problems can result down the road if a student graduates from an unaccredited college. In applying to graduate school, for example, they may find that their undergraduate work is not fully acceptable at the college to which they are applying.

A few colleges in this Guide are not yet accredited because they are new and accreditation can take several years. There is a standard process that an aspiring college must follow. The good news is that once accreditation is granted, it applies retroactively. We are impressed by the progress that the not-yet-accredited colleges in this Guide have made, and we are confident that the key question is "when" not "if" they will be fully accredited.

Nevertheless, students should discuss this matter with the admissions office at each college and feel comfortable with the accreditation status of the college that is finally selected.

9. Can a Catholic college have a lay board or lay officials and be committed to Church teachings?

Absolutely. It is not unusual for dedicated, orthodox Catholic laypeople to found or direct a college.

The key is how closely the college embraces Ex corde Ecclesiae. Does it, for instance, require the theology professors to receive the mandatum from the local bishop? Is the college's commitment to Church teachings reflected in the spiritual life, the curriculum, the outside speakers who appear on campus, the types of groups that flourish on campus, etc.? What is the college's relationship with the local bishop?

10. What is the mandatum?

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, "The mandatum is fundamentally an acknowledgement by church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church."

According to Canon Law, every Catholic theology professor must receive the mandatum from his local bishop. Catholic colleges, however, are not obligated to require the mandatum, and most colleges will not reveal which professors have received it.

Students seeking assurance of the orthodoxy of theology professors should consider colleges that voluntarily require the mandatum for employment and tenure. Many colleges in this Guide do so.

11. Do requirements such as the mandatum or prohibiting appearances by proabortion speakers curb academic freedom?

No. A college that identifies itself as Catholic should be expected to reflect Church teachings. A college's purpose is to seek and teach truth; at a Catholic college, the Catholic faith is recognized as truth from God revealed to us through Scripture, Christ and the Church.

Academic freedom protects faculty from interference when they seek or teach truth according to the methods proper to their academic discipline. Academic freedom also protects the truths of Faith from those who have no recognized theological expertise but who would publicly undermine Catholic teaching. In his address to Catholic educators (found in the Appendix), Pope Benedict notes that the crisis of Truth is rooted in a crisis of Faith.

12. How important is it to select a college with a vibrant spiritual life?

It is critical. While most people assume that colleges help provide a good education and prepare young people for careers, it is also a time for them to strengthen their spiritual life as they mature into adulthood. The best way to be so formed is to be in an atmosphere where the spiritual life, inside and outside the classroom, is emphasized and nurtured. A Catholic college that does this is fulfilling its role.

13. Is there an ideal residence hall arrangement?

In general, we believe that male and female students should live in separate residential facilities and that visitation rules should be appropriately enforced. Residence halls which provide an atmosphere where chastity is expected are to be especially commended.

There are some instances where colleges have males and females in the same dormitory but restrict each gender to different wings or even floors. This may reflect a college's space or financial limitations. Such an arrangement, while not ideal, might be workable provided the college maintains strict and careful supervision. These arrangements bear close inspection by parents and students.

14. Alcohol consumption seems to be a problem on college campuses, even at good Catholic colleges. What does this mean for a parent?

Underage and binge drinking are widespread problems and seem to reflect a general permissiveness within the broader society. It is imperative that parents discuss the issue candidly with their son or daughter. While colleges can and do address the issue through lectures and strict policies, it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual student to do the right thing.

15. Why are there so few larger universities in this Guide?

When we evaluated all the U.S. Catholic colleges for inclusion in this guide, we looked for those that actively lived their Catholic identity. We did not screen for size or locale or other extraneous criteria. These colleges are what our research reflected.

Sometimes the larger universities, in an attempt to build a national secular reputation as a research university, feel the need to de-emphasize their Catholicism. Some call it academic freedom or even just diversity, but it often unhinges a college from its traditional moorings.

A large Catholic college can be faithful to its identity if it so chooses. We are hopeful that more will begin to recognize that academic excellence, freedom of inquiry, national reputation and Catholic identity are all compatible.

16. Some of the colleges in this Guide are small, even very small. Should I be concerned about attending a college with a small student body?

Certainly not. Small colleges can provide great individual attention to student needs. They can help students gain confidence in classroom discussions, develop good relationships with faculty members and forge friendships with other students.

But small colleges are not for everyone. Some students prefer the opportunity to interact with a wider range of students, participate in more activities and take advantage of broader course offerings. A student needs to evaluate whether he or she is comfortable with the size of the college based on such issues as his or her personality and academic needs.

17. Is a college more likely to have a stronger Catholic identity if it has an historical tie with a religious order?

Alas, it is not. If that were the case, there would be many more orthodox Catholic colleges that we could recommend. The commitment to a Catholic identity on campus varies from order to order, sometimes within an order and from institution to institution. In some instances, the presence of a religious order has a profoundly positive impact and in others it is negligible. Colleges need to be evaluated on an individual basis.

18. College is expensive. What should I know about financing my education?

A college education is, indeed, expensive. Fortunately, there is an array of financial aid that exists at each private college, including those in this Guide. In some cases, almost all students receive some assistance.

It is essential that you speak frankly with the admissions and financial aid officials and investigate what help might be possible. We have been struck by the number of substantial scholarships that are available at these colleges, sometimes reserved exclusively for Catholic students whose records indicate great promise.

19. Should I be concerned that a college that interests me is not widely known?

Not really. Some students believe that graduating from a prestigious institution opens certain career doors. And, in some cases, it does. But for most students, such impact will be minimal.

What is important is whether your Catholic faith can be strengthened or at least maintained. Other considerations are whether you will get a good Catholic education, whether you will enjoy your undergraduate experience and whether the college provides you with an opportunity to make some lifetime friends. What more can you ask for?

20. I have found a few colleges in this Guide that greatly interest me. What do I do next?

You should visit the online site for the Guide at for more information about the colleges, including contact information. Next, thoroughly investigate the college's website. If you have questions, e-mail them to the appropriate college representative. Read the campus newspapers (many are online) to learn more about what's happening on campus – what are the issues, what are the problems, what do students seem to care about?

When you feel you have enough information to winnow down your list, visit each campus that has made the cut. The campus visit is essential. Talk to students there, wander around the campus, explore the town, attend Mass and campus events and speak forthrightly with college representatives. May God bless your search!




The Cardinal Newman Society. "Twenty Questions and Answers About Selecting a Catholic College." from The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College (Manassas, VA: The Cardinal Newman Society, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of The Cardinal Newman Society.

Founded in 1993, The Cardinal Newman Society is dedicated to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at America's 224 Catholic colleges and universities. The Society focuses its work on assisting students, alumni and school officials; urging fidelity to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church; and researching activities both on campus and in the classroom.

Copyright © 2009 The Cardinal Newman Society

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