With millions of Catholics welcoming Pope Francis on his whirlwind tour of three major east coast cities, the importance of the Catholic Church in postsecondary education will take center stage as the Holy Father becomes the third pope to visit Catholic University (CUA).
“The visit will mark the third time a pope has come to the University,” writes Catholic University President John Garvey, in a message welcoming visitors to campus. “In 1979 Pope John Paul II delivered a major address to Catholic educators on our campus. Following in his footsteps, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an address on the nature and mission of Catholic education on our campus.”
From the founding of Georgetown University in 1797 until today, the diverse collection of Catholic colleges and universities has enjoyed an influential position among institutions of higher learning in the U.S. To survive significant changes in the higher education marketplace, Catholic institutions have had to be smart about responding to cultural shifts in American society while at the same time remaining true to the principles and doctrine of the Catholic Church. And it hasn’t always been easy.
According to College Navigator, 214 four-year nonprofit colleges and universities in the U.S. identify with the Roman Catholic faith. They represent a wide variety of educational opportunities ranging from large research universities to small liberal arts colleges.
“It’s very difficult for many to even define what makes a Catholic college Catholic,” explained Jon Boeckenstedt, Associate Vice President at DePaul University in Chicago. “To some, outward manifestations such as a crucifix in every classroom are important. For others, it’s the infusion of Catholic theology into classroom discussions. But I think most Catholic colleges today accept a broader, ecumenical acceptance of all people as seekers on a common journey; one in which we are called to treat our fellow humans with respect and dignity rather than sway them to one particular viewpoint.”
Even knowing which colleges and universities identify as Catholic, it’s not always easy to figure out or understand fundamental differences among them—especially if you are not Catholic.
Most Catholic colleges have a specific founding order or group with which they also identify. For example Villanova University and Merrimack College are Augustinian; DePaul University, Niagara University and St. John’s University are Vincentian; Duquesne is Spiritan; and the University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College, and Holy Cross College are affiliated with the Congregation of Holy Cross—not to be confused with the College of the Holy Cross, which is Jesuit.
But by far, the largest group of Catholic institutions identifies as Jesuit. There are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities located in every corner of the country, including Georgetown and Loyola University of Maryland, in the DC area.
And as a group, Catholic colleges and universities have fantastic stories to tell—historic, educational, religious, and deeply compassionate. Here are some fast facts about Catholic higher education as provided by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU):
- Catholic college and university enrollment has increased by 15.1 percent since 2001
- Nearly 950,000 students are currently being served by U.S. Catholic institutions, with DePaul University the largest, enrolling about 16,150 undergraduate and about 7,600 graduate/law students
- An average of 65 percent of undergraduate students at Catholic colleges and universities identify as Catholic, with the University of Notre Dame among the highest at 81 percent
- Between 1980 and 2005, 10 new Catholic universities were founded
- 210 Catholic institutions award graduate degrees
- Catholic institutions of higher education include: 5 medical schools, 28 law schools, 25 engineering schools, 128 nursing schools, 163 schools of education, 14 women’s colleges, and 2 aviation programs
- 11 institutions grant only associate degrees (all but 4 are nursing programs associated with Catholic health care systems) and 19 institutions grant only graduate degrees (of these 16 are seminaries or other theological schools and 3 are specialized professional schools)
- 93% of all full time, first year students on campuses receive some form of financial aid with the amount of aid awarded across all Catholic colleges averaging $15,690
- The most recent undergrad study abroad rate for ACCU members was 28.7% or 3 times the national rate of 9.1%
- About 23% of the Catholic colleges and universities are test-optional or test-flexible (according to information provided by FairTest, including the most recent addition of the Catholic University of America
- Students enrolled in Catholic colleges and universities are more likely to receive degrees within four years than their peers at public, private or for-profit institutions
When Pope Frances celebrates Mass today on the stairs of the East Portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he will look out over the stunningly beautiful Catholic University campus. It will be a moment of great joy and pride for all CUA students and alums, as well as a tribute to the network of Catholic colleges and universities serving students coming from all faith traditions without regard for income, status, or race.