Wondering where to go for college? A new directory of Catholic colleges and universities may help

The following blog was contributed by Quentin Wodon, the volunteer team lead for the Global Catholic Education website.

In some countries, those considering enrolling in a Catholic college or university may have a choice between a few universities or none at all. In the United States, they have a choice between up to 250 Catholic colleges and universities (depending on which institutions are included). This provides a rich array of choices, but to make a sound decision on where to apply and enroll, information is needed.

A new directory published by the Global Catholic Education project and co-sponsored by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) might help. By providing detailed data on all Catholic colleges and universities as well as links to their websites, the directory makes it easier for prospective students to conduct their search. In addition, the directory provides insights on four questions that most prospective students have: (1) Should I go to college?; (2) How should I select a college?; (3) How can I compare different colleges?; and finally (4) Should I go to a Catholic college? While each individual student must answer those questions for himself or herself, information provided in the directory may be useful.

1. Should I Go to College? Enrolling in college may not be the right choice for everybody, and unfortunately, college remains difficult to afford for too many youth in the United States. Still, about two thirds of young people in the United States decide to enroll in higher education institutions according to the latest available statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of 3.2 million youth ages 16 to 24 who graduated from high school between January and October 2019, 2.1 million (66.2%) were enrolled in college in October of that year. In addition, many older adults also go to college.

Going to college is a privilege, as well as a great opportunity which can bring lifelong rewards. In comparison to workers with only a high school diploma, those with a college degree tend (on average) to have higher earnings, better job opportunities, lower unemployment rates, higher job satisfaction rates, and the list goes on. For example, the latest data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that workers with a bachelor’s degree make approximately $500 more in median weekly earnings than those with only a high school diploma (an increase of two thirds versus the pay level for high school graduates). The disadvantages faced by those without a college degree have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic which has disproportionately affected low income workers.

2. How Should I Select a College? While each student is indeed unique, it may be interesting for students to know about the priorities of other students, and whether there are differences in the priorities of students who chose to enroll in Catholic colleges and universities in comparison to all college freshmen. Data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey suggest that the most important factors leading freshmen to enroll in a Catholic college are as follows: (1) This college has a very good academic reputation (71.8%); (2) This college’s graduates get good jobs (67.3%); (3) I was offered financial assistance (65.5%); (4) The academic reputation of my intended major (59.0%); and (5) A visit to this campus (54.7%); (6) This college has a good reputation for its social and extracurricular activities (52.4%); (7) I wanted to go to a school about the size of this college (49.7%); and (8) The cost of attending this college (48.7%). The other reasons are cited by less than 40% of students.

Interestingly, the largest differences in priorities for selecting a college between students going to Catholic institutions and all students relate to: (1) Financial assistance (more than 9 in 10 students in Catholic colleges benefit from financial assistance); (2) College size (many Catholic colleges have small or medium size enrollment, which is seen as a plus); (3) Employment prospects (many Catholic colleges have strong placement records, which is one of the reasons why student debt default rates are much lower among graduates from Catholic institutions than nationally); (4) Faith affiliation (this is a key criteria for one in five students in Catholic colleges); and (5) Advice from professors (professors in Catholic colleges tend to care about their students – this is part of the institutions’ ethos).

3. How Can I Compare Colleges? All Catholic colleges and universities – and one could argue most colleges in general including those that are not Catholic – aim to provide a comprehensive education for the whole person. Prospective students should carefully look at the websites of the colleges they are considering to understand their programs, the courses being taught, who is teaching those courses, the opportunities for extracurricular activities or internships, distance learning options, and exchange programs, among others. Ideally, students should make visits to campuses they are interested in, although this might not be feasible, especially for international or out-of-state students.

Given that career prospects do matter for students when selecting a college or university, and that going to college is one of the largest financial investments people make in their lifetime, prospective students should also do their homework in terms of the job prospects that might be available to them depending on both the university and the major they choose. The good news is that data on those outcomes are now readily available from the College Scorecard. If you type the name of a specific college or university in the College Scorecard search field, you will be provided by a wide range of information among others on graduation rates, expected salaries, tuition costs, and debt levels as well as default rates. The Scorecard enables users to compare up to 10 universities or 10 fields of study.

Catholic colleges and universities do well (on average) on the various measures provided by the College Scorecard in comparison to other institutions. But to facilitate comparisons, the directory provides in an annex detailed data on selected variables for all Catholic colleges and universities. What the directory does not do is to rank colleges and universities. While some rankings may provide valuable information to prospective students, they often also have perverse effects.

4. Should I Go to a Catholic College? Of the four questions, this is the most difficult one for which to provide insights based on data, because it depends so much on the particular priorities of individual students. But a few pointers can be provided. There are no measures of the quality of the education provided by colleges that are available for most institutions and widely accepted. Yet what seems clear is that many Catholic colleges place an emphasis on the quality of teaching. Many Catholic colleges also try to make their education affordable to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This does not mean that they always succeed, but the preferential option for the poor is a key aspect of Catholic social thought that also permeates Catholic higher education. In addition, beyond universities that enroll many students, many institutions are small liberal arts colleges which again emphasize the quality of the education provided. Of all Catholic colleges and universities, more than one third are liberal arts colleges.

Catholic colleges and universities do place an emphasis on faith and values, but this is not forced upon students. In some Catholic colleges and universities, most students are Catholics. In others, a minority are. Nationally, two-fifths of students in Catholic colleges and universities are Catholic. In practice, if a student is interested in exploring or deepening his or her faith, whether Catholic or otherwise, there is no doubt that resources are available to do so in Catholic colleges and universities. But if this is not the student’s priority, that’s OK as well in most colleges. Finally, one interesting aspect of the Catholic ethos is that it encourages collaboration as opposed to competition. This is often the case in the classroom, but also in research and other activities that professors engage in. Because of this emphasis and the affinities that a common worldview affords, there are many examples of collaborations across Catholic colleges and universities. This can provide an added layer in students’ experiences, as can the fact that service to others is valued on campus, with typically a wide range of opportunities for volunteer work and a willingness of many students to engage.