Are there key questions to ask a Student Ambassador on a campus tour that would help a prospective student assess institutional Catholic identity? There are three questions but before recommending them it is important to frame them in the context of the uniqueness of Catholic higher education.
First things first: does a Catholic college or university provide a distinctive education?
Yes … it should.
As you consider the various choices available in a college search, this question on distinctiveness is legitimate and ought to be addressed in your inquiry. It centers your thinking as you balance available resources with personal interests. An authentic Catholic institution of higher education will demonstrate how it is serving students in a niche way and this should “stand out” in your discovery process. For if there is nothing unique at a Catholic college or university (CCU) in either approach or outcomes then it is very reasonable to give greater weight to other considerations such as access, costs or location.
Broadly, what makes Catholic higher education distinctive?
In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI remarked to Catholic educators that, “first and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.” In our increasingly secular society eight years later, a CCU that embraces and celebrates the truths of the Catholic faith with integrity in its mission will almost immediately discover itself in a unique place within the landscape of American higher education. There are over 5,500 higher education institutions and yet only 220+ are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. While small numbers are one attribute for distinctiveness, there are other crucial elements that you should consider.
To fulfill this mission as a CCU, you should seek to identify the four essential characteristics of these institutions offered by the Church (in Ex Corde Ecclesiae): a Christian inspiration for the entire community, its work done in the reflection of the Catholic faith, fidelity to the gospel message as it comes through the Catholic Church, and a commitment to the service of people in their earthly pilgrimage to the “transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.”
Why do these essential characteristics matter? They matter because the primary purpose of a higher education is to produce grounded leaders that will influence society positively in their professions, such as business, education, law, medicine, and social work as well as in their families and communities as spouses, parents, and neighbors. Therefore, these essential characteristics provide the constituent elements for an environment that seeks to achieve this purpose with the students. Ex Corde Ecclesiae also reminds students that they “should realize the responsibility of their professional life, the enthusiasm of being the trained ‘leaders’ of tomorrow, or being witnesses to Christ in whatever place they may exercise their profession.”
Thus, we should desire that the graduates have the capacity to think in ways that encourage an objective search for truth while exhibiting virtuous habits all for the common good. Certainly academics are the core function of college life, but achieving the ultimate purpose of this ‘higher education’ requires purposeful activities outside of the classroom, too. Thus, the student ambassadors, usually soon-to-be graduates that the institution holds dear, can serve as a thermometer for you in determining the health of the institution.
Specifically, how does one establish a framework to determine if a particular CCU is seeking to fulfill the promise of providing students a distinctive higher education?
Begin with the Collins College Report Card. Use it for your website review. Use it in reviewing admission materials, Facebook pages for the school and students, and institutional tweets. Use it for your campus visit. Use it in your discussions with guidance counselors, family, and friends. This will help you develop a view from the outside.
What about an insider’s view?
While on a campus tour, research suggests that three A-B-C questions asked of your student ambassador will offer you a snapshot as to how students are responding to institutional efforts to create that unique place in higher education with a particular orientation that seeks to achieve the promise of its purpose:
1. Academics: Did you take courses in Catholic philosophy and theology?
2. Bishop: Have you seen the Bishop at a recent campus event?
3. Campus ministry: In which campus ministry-sponsored activities do you participate?
The A-B-C questions compliment the 15 signal features of the Collins College Report Card. Yet, they are personalized in the interaction with the student ambassador. A student ambassador with three answers in the affirmative is a positive indicator that there is something distinctive occurring on campus.
Enrollment presents challenges for virtually all colleges and universities in America. Within Catholic higher education, schools attempt to remain distinctive and relevant to prospective students. They accomplish this in pursuing their mission with integrity. The Collins College Report Card and the A-B-C questions can help you gather meaningful information and eliminate surprises as you navigate the search and enrollment process.
“Everyone in the [university] community…contributes…towards maintaining and strengthening the distinctive Catholic character of the institution” is the Church’s reflection from Ex Corde Ecclesiae of 900 years of experience in higher education. The conversation you have with the student ambassador is but one indicator of the community-wide effort on the particular campus this year.
If only the college decision was as easy as our A-B-Cs.