As almost all college students and their parents can tell you, paying for college hurts. For Jan VonHandorf, a sense of dread re-emerged in the summer after her son Dusty completed his first year at the University of Notre Dame. "In August $18,000 was due, and I had no idea how we would pay for it," she recalls. Dusty was back home working a summer job in Villa Hills, Kentucky, and on one of his days off he accompanied his mom to a church festival in nearby Cincinnati. They bought tickets to the raffle and, in what seemed like an answer to her prayers, won $25,000. "Every cent went to Notre Dame," she says.
Not everyone can count on financial aid via divine intervention, and even for the middle-income VonHandorf family the windfall didn't cover more than sophomore year. "We really went semester by semester to send him to school," she says. Dusty, who graduated in 2007, took out student loans, received some grants, paid for a semester with inheritance money, and worked 10 to 20 hours a week during the school year and full time during the summers. "In the end it was really a patchwork of financing," said VonHandorf.
College costs have skyrocketed over the last two decades, and for students considering Catholic colleges and universities, the sticker price is sometimes two or three--or many more--times that of a state school. Compare Fordham University's yearly tuition of $32,354 to State University of New York Binghamton's $5,998 for in-state students, and it's easy to see why students and parents might take one look at the price tags of these two New York schools--both listed as "more selective" national universities in U.S. News and World Report's rankings--and be swayed toward the latter.
The reality is that the vast majority of Catholic students in college--nine out of 10, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate--attend public or non-Catholic private institutions, so outreach through Newman Centers, local parishes, and Catholic studies programs is essential. But Catholic colleges aren't just for students from wealthy families, and they serve an essential and particular role for the church in the United States.
"The commodification of higher education is scary," says Rosalie Mirenda, president of Neumann College, a Catholic college in Aston, Pennsylvania. "We at Neumann want to be Catholic. The Catholic, and in our case Franciscan, perspective that we bring to our world through our programs, our graduates, and all that we do is extremely important. We're very serious about maintaining that Catholic imagination and our particular values. If we weren't, then why not go to Penn State? They have wonderful programs from a secular point of view and it's cheaper. Then the whole issue of financing goes away."
But the issue of financing a Catholic college education wasn't always quite as challenging as it is now. In 1974 Dusty VonHandorf's father, Bob, graduated from Thomas More College, a diocesan school in Crestview Hills, Kentucky. Having worked his way through college, it was hard to appreciate that his son couldn't just do the same. But while the cost per credit hour for the elder VonHandorf was just $38 in his senior year, Dusty's was $1,370.
Past generations seem to have countless stories of first-generation students paying their own way, as well as stories of how the good Jesuits, Sisters of Mercy, Dominicans, and Christian Brothers "just made it work" for students whose families weren't able to cover expenses.
But even then, the mission of Catholic colleges wasn't to provide charity, says Richard A. Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU). "They were founded to train priests and to provide a safe haven from the rampant Protestantism and secularism in other private institutions and state schools. Catholic schools were founded to educate Catholics, period."
But as U. …