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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Harvey

Discerning a Catholic College (or Newman Center)

Updated: Jan 12

The season of college visits and applications can be a complicated time for the parent-child relationship. There is a child’s growing independence, and yet any child living at home is still dependent upon their family in more ways than one. A child that receives financial support from parents toward college tuition retains some dependence when it comes to university studies. How much say should parents have in the choice of college? How involved should parents be during a college visit? Should parents warn their child against some colleges and promote others? This article does not seek to provide sufficient answers to these questions, because every parent-child relationship is unique. What I do hope to offer are some general thoughts for those family’s wanting a specific kind of Catholic experience during the college years. 

college students

If you are reading this on the Evangelium Institute’s blog I think it is a fair presumption that you are Catholic. If you are a parent, I am sure it is also not a stretch to presume that you want your child to grow in their Catholic faith as they leave the home and not to leave it behind as a remnant from their childhood. No college choice equals automatic results when it comes to being Catholic in adulthood. Yet, I think every parent wants to know if someone is presenting something to us as Catholic, is it truly and faithfully Catholic or a counterfeit? Below I offer a series of questions to consider when researching colleges or while on college visits. The totality of responses to such questions will likely give you a good idea of a particular university’s brand of “Catholic.” For those looking at non-Catholic colleges, I also offer some questions when visiting any Catholic student center nearby. The goal of these questions is simply to ensure you and your family are fully informed about the role of faith within a university or Catholic student center. 


Three Issues to Consider Prior to Visiting Colleges 

First Issue: Parents should first be stressing vocation discernment before introducing college discernment. Why? If my son is called to the priesthood or my daughter to religious life, then they do not need to be focusing on choosing a major and visiting colleges. College debt can cause problems if my children want to consider the seminary or the convent. Since it is not my place to presume what they are or are not called to, I need to ensure they are also going on visits to help them discern their vocation. A college education should be chosen to support one’s vocation. Would I want them to choose a college without researching and visiting it first? Absolutely not. Then I would not want them to go through life without discerning their vocation.

Second Issue: A four-year college and the debt that comes with it is not the only option for career training. There are also trade schools. Some trades require fewer years of studies/training, cheaper tuition, and some have higher income and greater job security than their four-year college counterparts. (please notice my use of the word “some”) Be sure to research and visit such community colleges or trade schools as well.

Third Issue: Online learning was already becoming more normative prior to the cultural shift that resulted from Covid-19. Since 2020 online learning opportunities have greatly expanded. There are good Catholic colleges that offer undergraduate degrees fully online with more coming soon. Online programs are often cheaper if cost is a concern for your family. 


Practical Considerations  

Whether you are looking into a Catholic university or not, here are some tips for your visit: 

  • Colleges will try to impress you during a large college visit day when dozens or hundreds of visiting teens are on campus. There are many benefits that come from these visits. Yet, it may not give the full picture of the campus. Such visit days are like being impressed with someone’s home once they have had notice and time to get it cleaned. Also be sure to visit the campus on another day to experience a more realistic look into the campus.  

  • Be sure to visit the cafeteria (also ask about their workout rooms!). 

  • You will likely be able to park in a visitor parking spot. Also spend some time driving through all their parking lots to investigate the campus further.  

  • Ask about their Liberal Arts core courses. In an ever-changing world, a strong Liberal Arts background is important for developing the art of human excellence.  

  • Take pictures/videos and notes to help keep all the experiences distinct from other college visits.  


Visiting a Catholic University 

To ensure your family fully understands the Catholic identity and vibrancy on a given campus, here are some things to consider.  

  • Visit the chapel for Mass and one other time before departing. Do professors, staff, and students attend liturgies or visit the chapel outside of Mass? Does the priest celebrate the Mass according to the mind and heart of the Church? Does the priest or liturgist often insert their own preferences? 

  • Ask: How often is there Mass on weekdays and weekends? Is it full? 

  • Ask: How often is there Confession and Eucharistic Adoration? 

  • Ask: What kinds of devotional events do students participate in throughout the year? For example: Stations of the Cross, May Crowning, the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, etc.  

  • Ask: Do ALL theology professors request and receive the mandatum to teach from the local bishop? (the Church does require it) If not, ask for an explanation.  

  • Ask: Is the local bishop or his representative part of the board of trustees? What percentage of the board is Catholic? 

  • Visit the campus ministry office and learn about pilgrimages, service trips, retreats, spiritual direction, bible studies, and other small group opportunities.  

  • Ask: Do you have a full-time priest on campus?  

  • Ask: Does the college send students to the annual SEEK conference and any Pro-Life events like the March for Life? 

  • Ask: How many alumni have become priests, deacons, or joined a religious order? 

  • Ask: How many theology courses are required for all students? How many philosophy courses are required for all students?   

  • Ask: Do professors make a profession of faith upon hiring? Has the president made a profession of faith? 

  • Ask: How many members of the campus community went through RCIA/OCIA last year? 

This is not an exhaustive list, but the answers to these questions will give you a general idea of the role of faith and Catholicism within the academic community.  


Newman (Catholic) Center for other Universities 

We live in a time that is blessed with many great institutions to help college students to grow in their Catholic faith as they attend a non-Catholic university. These are usually referred to as a “Newman Center” or “Catholic Student Center.” The university you are considering should be able to tell you if such a center exists. Here are some questions to ask in addition to those listed above: 

  • Does the Catholic center have its own housing system (aka Catholic dorms)? 

  • Do they have community nights, meals, and other social opportunities for cultivating the Catholic community on campus?  

  • Are any of the Catholic professors active at the center? 

  • Are there FOCUS missionaries at the center? 

  • What non-credit courses are offered to learn about Catholicism more deeply? 

  • What for-credit courses are offered? Does the university accept them as transfer credit? Who are they accredited by? Who teaches them? 

  • What Catholic clubs and organizations are available?  

  • How active are students in bible studies, volunteering, RCIA/OCIA, sacraments, SEEK, retreats, etc.  

  • How active are the local clergy and religious orders? 


Concluding Thoughts 

There are also great resources out there to point you in the direction of some great Catholic college opportunities. It is a good start. There are some colleges that I think should be included but by getting to know and experience some of those on the list, it will be easier to notice essential similarities and differences with others. There is the Cardinal Newman Society’s Newman Guide that lists colleges that meet a particular criterion. The National Catholic Register also has a list. There are even Catholic trade schools that have begun in recent years: Harmel Academy of the Trades, The College of St. Joseph the Worker, Kateri College of the Liberal and Practical Arts.

Whether your child attends a Catholic university or not, their college choice alone will not guarantee whether they stay Catholic. Whatever path they choose, our work as parents does not end (we will even continue it in heaven!). Just as we do not presume that their religious instruction at a parish or school during their youth is all they need, as such opportunities accompany and enrich what we do at home as Catholic parents, so too we will continue to promote and invite our adult children into the depths of God’s grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.

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