Bekah Gross chose a Catholic university over two top secular schools this year because she felt she could better live out her Catholic faith on campus.
It also didn’t hurt that the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., offered the senior at St. Agnes High School in St. Paul a scholarship that will help her live on campus.
Gross looks forward to getting involved in the university’s campus ministry, and she’ll receive more than $21,000 over four years to cover room and board because she is graduating from a Catholic high school.
“That was probably a big indicator that I should go,” she said.
Whether or not having a high percentage of Catholic students is a deliberate goal, Catholic colleges and universities such as the University of Mary are using a variety of strategies to attract Catholic students.
Often identifying them as Catholic through the application process, schools are reaching potential students such as Gross through scholarships and aid, branding and marketing, Catholic academic and extracurricular programs, as well as by simply having a strong Catholic presence on campus.
Guided by “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Blessed Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic letter on Catholic universities that establishes norms for Catholic identity, more than 250 schools ranging from those that have fewer Catholic students for historical or geographical reasons to those with a nearly all-Catholic student body are shaping their Catholic identity as a way of attracting and caring for Catholic students — and also to better serve non-Catholic students.
A Catholic college’s Catholic identity rests upon more than just the number of Catholic students it enrolls, said Sister Margaret Carney, OSF, board chair of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, which represents 231 Catholic colleges and universities.
“Catholic identity can exist with no Catholics in your student population,” although that would be an extreme example, she noted.
“If what you’re after is creating a Catholic culture and institution — that is, in every aspect you’re checking the box Catholic — that’s a very different profile,” said Sister Margaret, who is also president of St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, N.Y. Many Catholic colleges and universities that don’t necessarily seek to attract a nearly all-Catholic student body nevertheless work to clearly and consistently make their Catholic identity known to all their students, she added.
Locally, Catholic students at the University of St. Thomas, St. Catherine University — both in St. Paul — and St. Mary’s University in Winona comprise 45 percent to 60 percent of the student body at each of the schools.
Fifty percent of students at the University of Mary are Catholic. Along with the University of Mary, which offers its donor-funded scholarship to all Catholic high school graduates, St. Catherine and St. Mary’s offer donor-funded scholarships for graduates of certain Twin Cities Catholic high schools.
“It’s a support tool for us that we offer to graduates of Catholic high schools across the nation as a minimum commitment that we make to them,” said Mike Heitkamp, University of Mary admissions director.
One school that offers no scholarships to Catholic high school students but targets only Catholic students is Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. Nearly 99 percent of the 2,500 undergraduate and graduate students are Catholic, said Joel Recznick, vice president of enrollment.
The school recruits students at Catholic schools, youth groups and organizations such as LifeTeen. Once they are accepted, they are eligible for scholarships and aid, he said.
“We’re Catholic through and through, and it’s not that we’re just trying to ‘attract Catholic students,’” he said. “It’s because of our nature. It flows that we are Catholic and so we want those types of students to come here, and then they feel at home and there’s a fit for them and for us.”
Offering Catholic high school graduates a scholarship does not necessarily mean the college or university will attract all-Catholic students, as increasing numbers of students in those high schools are not Catholic, Sister Margaret said. Nor does checking “Catholic” on an application mean students readily practice their faith, she added.
While the University of St. Thomas works with Catholic high schools, it accepts students of all backgrounds and doesn’t ask them to identify their religion on their application in order to the avoid the appearance of discrimination, said Marla Friederichs, associate vice president of admissions and financial aid at the university, which has more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
After students are accepted, the school asks them about their faith and discusses aid and St. Thomas’ Catholic nature. “It is who we are,” she said. “We want to be very clear to students that we’re accepting of everybody, but we are a Catholic school and help them understand what that means.”
Part of the University of St. Thomas’ Catholic identity is embodied in its Catholic Studies department. As stipulated by “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Catholic colleges and universities must require students to take some theology and religious studies courses, Sister Margaret said.
St. Catherine University asks but doesn’t require applicants to identify their religion because it helps the university know better how to serve the students, said Marlene Mohs, associate dean of admissions.
The school, which has 5,000 traditional, adult and graduate students, recruits in many Catholic schools and communities but also in non-Catholic communities, which is part of the charism of St. Catherine’s founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
“Social justice is really a part of our mission,” she said. “We are looking to have a diverse student body here. Having said that, we specifically want to appeal to Catholic students and to have them here at St. Kate’s.”
Catholic social justice is also an important part of the university’s Catholic identity, which attracts Catholic students — as do opportunities for mission trips, outreach into the community and liturgy, she said.
A mission trip experience that involved getting to know Notre Dame students last year drew Elle Newcome to the Notre Dame, Ind., university from among the eight Catholic colleges and universities she applied to for the fall.
“While I realize that not all students at every Catholic college practice their faith, I am already connected with the faith community at Notre Dame and I know that in seeking and looking for faith-filled friendships, I will find them there,” said Newcome, a senior at Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights.
St. Mary’s University hopes to draw more students to its Winona and Twin Cities campuses by promoting its identity based on the teaching of St. John Baptist de La Salle, founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, said Brandi DeFries, admissions director at the university, which has 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
Presenting the value of a Lasallian education in the next year is the goal of the branding campaign that Lasallian secondary schools, colleges and universities in the United States and Canada are conducting, she said.
“I think that’ll reach beyond to the whole Catholic community, to educate the uniqueness of what Lasallian education could provide to students in a quality education.”
Making a faith connection — with scholarships, Catholic programs and even simply support to practice their faith — is selling students like Gross on a Catholic college education.
“Part of what scared me about college was that so many people don’t share my views,” she said. “It’s not that I can’t handle that, but I hoped to foster my faith in college so when I graduate I feel more prepared to live my faith in the world.”