Leveraging Catholic Colleges’ Distinct Strengths
Findings from the latest CIRP Freshman Survey suggest that the most important factors leading freshmen to enroll in a Catholic college are: (1) academic reputation (reason cited by 71.8% of students); (2) employment prospects (67.3%); (3) financial assistance (65.5%); (4) a major’s academic reputation (59.0%); (5) visits to campus (54.7%); (6) social and extracurricular activities (52.4%); (7) college size (49.7%); and (8) cost (48.7%). Other reasons are each cited by less than 40% of students. Catholic identity is not high on the list!
It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that Catholic identity does not matter. In fact, what is more useful in identifying the comparative advantage of Catholic colleges is not the absolute, but rather the relative reasons to choose a Catholic college over another institution. When students were asked why they chose their particular college, the five reasons selected notably more often by Catholic college enrollees (in comparison to all freshmen) were:
- Financial assistance. This may be because nine in ten students in Catholic colleges benefit from some form of financial assistance.
- College size. Many Catholic colleges have small to medium-size enrollment, which is seen by some students as a plus.
- Employment prospects. Catholic colleges tend to 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.
- Faith affiliation. This is a key criteria for one in five students at Catholic colleges.
- Advice from professors. Professors at Catholic colleges tend to care about their students in a way that is an extension of the institutions’ ethos.
The fact that financial assistance, college size, and employment prospects show up high among those relative differences is not surprising. Faith affiliation also matters for a subset of students. But the last reason in terms of differential is particularly interesting: Advice from professors matters. This is a strength that can be built up during campus visits, even when conducted remotely. The personal touch that advice from a professor can bring is more important to student choice than many campus leaders may realize.
The directory also addresses other issues to make the case for the value of attending a Catholic institution. For instance, to help students with the third question, “How can I compare different colleges,” the directory provides comparative data for selected variables from the College Scorecard for all Catholic colleges and universities. For anyone who has not looked at those data across all Catholic colleges and universities, the annex to the directory makes such comparisons easy.
Finally, the directory includes a brief discussion of the last question, “Should I go to a Catholic college?” Of the four questions that students may ask, 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 are provided, centering on the related issues of the quality of the education provided and the level of emphasis on faith, values, and collaboration.
The college market is becoming increasingly competitive, and this is not likely to change. But there is a wealth of data available not only to inform students but also to guide Catholic colleges and universities in reaching out to potential enrollees. The data collated in the new Directory of Catholic Colleges and Universities are but one example.
Quentin Wodon works in international development and serves as volunteer lead for Global Catholic Education. This article was written by the author in a purely personal capacity as part of his volunteer work. It should not be associated in any way with the author’s employer and may not represent the views of his employer, its executive directors, or the countries they represent.
The Global Catholic Education project is a 100 percent volunteer-based effort launched about six months ago to contribute to Catholic education and integral human development globally with a range of resources, including a blog, events, guidance on good practices, publications, and data. The volunteer team manages the project and covers its costs, and is fortunate to work in partnership with the four organizations that federate Catholic education globally: the International Office of Catholic Education, the International Federation of Catholic Universities, the World Organization of Former Students of Catholic Education, and the World Union of Catholic Teachers.
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