The big questions

| December 6, 2009 | 0 Comments

St. Thomas and St. Kate reps on why Catholic higher education matters

So what makes Catholic higher education Catholic?

Catholic Spirit reporter Maria Wiering sat down with Mark Dienhart, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the University of St. Thomas, and Brian Bruess, vice president for enrollment management and dean of student affairs at St. Catherine’s University, to ask them about the roles of their Catholic universities.

catholic_universitiesWhy choose a Catholic university?

Dienhart, a graduate of St. Thomas whose wife and daughters have also attended the university for various degrees, said there are multiple reasons one would choose a Catholic university.

“I’m biased to the Catholic intellectual tradition: it’s rich, it’s deep, I think it informs young people in the biggest questions of life — the ‘why’ kinds of questions,” he said. “There’s no substitute for that.”

And Catholic education doesn’t just benefit undergraduates, he added. Professional degree-seekers also have much to gain from Catholic education.

“[For example,] if you’re discussing business ethics, there’s a connection to ‘why’ questions as well,” he said. “Faith and reason coming together in times of life . . . create powerful dynamics that really shape individuals . . . and produce a better society.”

Faith-based institutions offer an entire set of desirable characteristics to someone looking at a college, Dienhart said, listing more personal attention, an emphasis on teaching and a community of respect for faith.

Bruess, who also received a Catholic education, said Catholic higher education fosters “an environment where students are fully engaged in who they are and [their] faith in God.”

“The kind of environment and atmosphere that we create with our institutions is one that is characterized by an actual Catholic intellectual tradition, ritual faith tradition that you see in the liturgy and commitment to social justice,” he added. “Our students are engaged at a level of discernment on matters of importance, personally and in the world.”

That level of engagement is an important indicator of success in university life, he said.

Students who are concerned about values and ethics are more fully engaged in their work, and lives, he added.

Although both are staunch supporters of Catholic education, Bruess and Dienhart added that public and non-Catholic private institutions are not deficient; they are just different. However, students who attend non-Catholic institutions often compartmentalize their experiences and are limited in the way they can explore their biggest questions of meaning in the classroom.

Is Catholic higher education affordable?

It’s widely known that Catholic education isn’t inexpensive, but no higher education experience is, Dienhart said. Still, people do it — enrollment for both St. Thomas and St. Kate is among the highest in the schools’ histories.

“It’s the best investment I think you can make . . . in leading a meaningful life,” he added.

Students shouldn’t assume it’s more expensive to attend a Catholic school than another institution, even if the “sticker price”makes it appear so.

“There’s this perception that Catholic higher education is unaffordable because some folks stop looking at it because they see a sticker price. They see a total cost of attendance, and they don’t understand the complexity of financial aid that can go to support that,” Bruess said.

The only way to be sure of the cost is to apply to attend the school and to receive financial aid, Dienhart said. With the rising cost of public higher education and increasing financial aid opportunities at Catholic schools, actual costs might be comparable at a Catholic institution.

For some families, it might even be less expensive to attend a Catholic institution because of scholarships, Bruess added.

However, it’s still a struggle for universities to keep education affordable, Dienhart said, and it’s a struggle for many families to make it happen for their college-bound young adult.

“But it’s still worth it,” he said. And if a student does pay more for Catholic education than public or another private education, he or she is also getting something he or she may not get somewhere else, including that grounding in Catholic faith.

The sooner a family begins to plan for its child’s higher education, the better, Bruess added.

Will Catholic education keep my kids Catholic?

The goal of Catholic institutions is much deeper than just “keeping someone Catholic,” Bruess said. “Both our institutions have shaped a curriculum . . . that is integrated with the Catholic intellectual tradition and the principles of Catholic social teaching. Our goal is something much more beautiful than [just] keeping someone Catholic. Our goal is to deepen and enrich.”

However, one cannot guarantee that Catholic education will keep someone Catholic, as much as you would like to, Dienhart said. However, Catholic education will introduce students to the tools necessary to address important questions, like who they are, and who God is.

“Our hope is to allow their faith and that sense of what it means to be Catholic and alive in the world to be much more deeply and much more fully understood,” Bruess said.

“We say to parents that we are deeply committed to our Catholic faith and the values and ethos, and we’re going to engage with that,” Bruess added. “We want our students to come through their education asking all those discerning questions, and come out at some point . . . with a much more amplified sense of what it means to be Catholic.”

Although fewer priests and sisters daily roam the campuses, thus diminishing the number of obvious “symbol bearers,” St. Thomas and St. Kate’s have worked to express their Catholic identity in new ways.

Dienhart sees a much more “intentionally Catholic” campus today than he did when he was a student, he said, pointing to campus ministry, service programs and the Center for Catholic Studies.

St. Kate’s is also engaging the university around the faith, values and charism of its founders, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Bruess points to the curriculum’s integration of Catholic thought and values. “It’s that kind of change that for me that will help ensure the perpetuity of these missions.

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