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Can You Afford a Catholic Education?

Phil Lenahan
Mr. Lenahan, president of Veritas Financial Ministries, is the author of Seven Steps to Becoming Financially Free:
A Catholic Guide to Managing Your Money and a series of financial-advice materials published by Our Sunday Visitor.

I’m not an education expert. My expertise Nevertheless, anyone interested in choos-

is in financial counseling, following an ac- ing a Catholic college or university clearly is
counting career that put me at a Fortune 300 thinking beyond career choices. There are
company overseeing the finances of a $250 many important benefits—ultimately more
million division. important than career—to attending a faith-
Although the primary concerns of every fully Catholic college or university. They
Catholic family with college-bound men and include an education that helps students bet-
women should be their exposure to truth and ter understand their faith, the world and the
their continuing formation in the likeness of roots of our society; a healthy campus envi-
Christ, there are obvious financial consid- ronment that allows students to mature spiri-
erations with every college decision. These tually and socially in the image of Christ; and
include career planning, paying tuition and access to mentors who can help students dis-
related expenses, and choosing colleges that cern their vocations to the priesthood or reli-
reasonably match your ability to pay. gious life, family life or the single state. The
My advice below is accumulated from college years frequently lead to the choice of
years of advising Catholic families through a spouse; I can’t overstate the importance of
my nonprofit service, Veritas Financial Min- selecting a college environment that draws
istries (, and other students who love and practice their
adapted from several of my articles and books Catholic faith.
published by Our Sunday Visitor including So it is a mistake to view a Catholic col-
Seven Steps to Becoming Financially Free: A lege education as nothing more than prepara-
Catholic Guide to Managing Your Money. tion for a lucrative job, but to be realistic, it is
also impossible for most students to separate
college decisions from the implications for
Planning for a Career future employment and wellbeing. As long
as it is put in the proper context, a college or
Today most Americans view a college educa-
university’s impact on a student’s future em-
tion as a ticket to a particular profession or at
ployment and income deserves serious con-
least a higher-paying job. Period.
There’s no disputing the fact that what
It’s wise for a family to discuss and plan
one chooses to study in college can have a
ahead for a graduate’s financial welfare, espe-
significant impact on future career decisions,
cially if the student seems likely to get mar-
especially in the decade or so immediately
ried. The fact that most young men and wom-
following graduation. This is an important
en develop and sometimes radically change
consideration, especially given the rising
their career interests while attending college
costs of tuition and other expenses and com-
does not mean that families shouldn’t plan
petition for jobs.
for a student’s likely path after graduation—

The Newman Guide 43

Can You Afford a Catholic Education?

allowing sufficient flexibility in the plan for subsequent graduate studies and career train-
changing career goals and increasing aware- ing.
ness of God’s calling. I do recommend the liberal arts, though,
This gets to the question, “What am I go- as the core of a college education. The early
ing to do with the education I receive?” The college years, when students are typically be-
possibilities are many, including teaching, tween 18 and 22 years old, continue to be a
ministry, nursing, accounting, law, business, time of searching about who they are and how
engineering, medicine, computer science and they fit into this great big world. This is a time
so on. With each of these, you have at least a for them to consider the more important ques-
reasonable sense of the earnings capacity asso- tions about life, to solidify what they believe
ciated with the degree, and you can plan your and why, and to do so in an environment that
financial commitments accordingly. will foster a closer relationship with the Lord.
Having some idea about a young adult’s A solid Catholic liberal arts education helps the
particular career calling can help avoid costly young adult find answers to these important
mistakes in choosing the wrong college. At the life questions. It also helps the young person
most basic level, it’s important to remember place their vocation in the context of this big-
that a college education may not be the right ger picture.
choice at all. Not everyone is of the “bent” to This is often accomplished at the best
complete a four- Catholic colleges
year (or more) and universities
academic pro- Having some idea about a young by immersing the
gram. Much time student in theol-
and money can adult’s particular career calling ogy, philosophy
be wasted trying and the classics of
to force a square
can help avoid costly mistakes in Western civiliza-
peg into a round tion—at least for
choosing the wrong college.
hole! We all have the general educa-
different gifts and tion component of
abilities, and some their college expe-
of us would do better to learn a trade or craft rience. Some students choose to make such
through an apprenticeship or vocational trade a liberal arts program the focus of their four-
school. year program. This is a beautiful education,
For those who attend college, it’s impor- yet one that is hard to pin down from an “eco-
tant to remember that the dizzying pace of nomic value” standpoint. It can be an excellent
change in technology that has led to a global spring board to graduate programs in law, the-
marketplace requires that workers in most ology or a number of other disciplines.
fields be well-equipped to play their part in
that economy. That could mean obtaining an
education beyond a core “Catholic liberal arts”
Paying for College
formation—that is, one that’s focused on par-
When it comes to a genuine Catholic education
ticular vocational training, such as medicine,
for our children, finances play a key role in two
law, business, nursing, teaching and so on. I’m
ways. First, as parents, we have responsibility
a strong advocate of coupling a solid Catholic
for providing the resources which allow our
liberal arts program of study with the best vo-
children to obtain a solid Catholic education,
cational education the young adult can obtain,
or helping students find ways to pay for col-
whether as an undergraduate student or in
lege when we cannot. Second, we are called to

44 The Newman Guide

Phil Lenahan

be a living example when it comes to applying on its own, doesn’t point to an adequate income
Godly principles in the area of money manage- to pay the debts off in a reasonable time frame.
ment. Handling $50,000 in student loans is very dif-
You need to decide for yourself whether ferent for an attorney than it is for a teacher at
and when it makes sense to go into debt, and a Catholic school. While there are certainly
how much debt is reasonable. I strongly be- no guarantees that the lawyer’s career path
lieve in minimizing one’s debt, but it can make will work out, one can make reasonable as-
sense to use debt prudently when you’re pur- sumptions. It is pretty clear that a teacher at
chasing an appreciating asset. Most often, this a Catholic school will have a limited income,
relates to the purchase of a home and possibly and heavy debts will be an incredible burden.
investment real estate, but it also holds true for When the income is expected to be lim-
obtaining a higher education. Many studies ited, I would look for a plan that can repay
have shown that a college degree adds to one’s the debt in a period of three to five years after
earning potential over the years—although graduation. That may mean some pretty radi-
this is only true in the aggregate, and there are cal lifestyle decisions immediately after college
many particular to keep expenses
instances where incredibly low so
a college degree’s parents and students that the debts can
does not signifi- be repaid quickly.
cantly increase are too easily accepting more debt My sense is that
earning potential student debt in the
for an individual. than they should... especially when range of $15,000 is
So taking on some reasonable in such
debt to obtain a it comes to a degree that, on its a situation. With
college degree an educational
own, doesn’t point to an adequate
can make sense plan where a
in some circum- income to pay the debts off in a higher income can
stances if done at least be antici-
prudently. reasonable time frame. pated, additional
But doing so debt is highly like-
also comes with ly and is probably
risks. In my counseling, one of the traps I reasonable.
see families falling into is the use of credit to Debt is not the only option for paying for
pay bills without the resources to pay the bal- college expenses. The federal government has
ance off at the end of the month. This results enacted various legislation designed to ease
in ever-growing levels of debt with very high the financial burden of higher education, in-
interest charges and takes precious resources cluding the Hope Scholarship Credit, Lifetime
away from your children. Your financial blun- Learning Credit, Educational IRAs and 529
ders may very well force you to narrow the Savings Plans. Several states have additional
choices you make regarding the education of savings and financing plans worth looking at.
your children, and they may not necessarily be And don’t forget the possibility of scholar-
the choices you want to make. ships and grants. Depending on your child’s
I am concerned that today’s parents and scholastic abilities and extracurricular activi-
students are too easily accepting more debt ties, as well as your financial situation, these
than they should as part of the financing pack- may provide a substantial portion of the overall
age, especially when it comes to a degree that, college cost. The Knights of Columbus offers a

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Can You Afford a Catholic Education?

generous scholarship program for members’ common occurrence during the college years
children attending Catholic colleges and uni- that young men and women meet, grow in
versities. Ask your prospective college about love, and marry shortly after they graduate.
special grant opportunities—often they are not This is a beautiful thing, but it may throw a
well-promoted—and check around in your lo- wrench into plans to pay off debt. While they
cal community and with your employer. Often both may have planned on working for a num-
students must apply for scholarships well in ber of years, an early pregnancy may change
advance of the academic year. all of those plans. Make sure that you take this
The College Board’s website, www.col- possibility into account as you consider educa-, can be a very helpful tool for tion and funding alternatives.
better understanding how you can pay for a
college education.
Your son or daughter can help too. I’m a
Choosing a College Wisely
big believer in the student playing a substan-
One of the calls I received on a radio pro-
tive role in paying for their education. They
gram came from a woman whose daughter had
may have a greater appreciation for their edu-
been admitted to one of the top music schools
cation if they pay for a portion of it. That means
in the country.
work-study pro-
Un f o r t u n a t e l y,
grams when possi-
ble, summer work, If you can find what you need in the school wasn’t
going to offer any
keeping living ex-
one of these [Newman Guide] scholarship mon-
penses low during
ey, and the total
the college years institutions, and you have planned cost of the educa-
and having a plan
tion was expect-
immediately after carefully how to pay for it, then ed to be nearly
the college years to
aggressively tackle you will have invested wisely The family
the debt incurred.
in the final preparation of a had no savings
You’ll want to en-
that could be al-
sure that work
doesn’t become an young man or woman to know, located for this
purpose, so the
end in itself, caus-
ing the student’s
love and serve God. woman wanted
to know what I
grades to suffer
thought about
with negative con-
borrowing the money so her daughter could
sequences for the future.
attend the school.
I remember the story of one young man
My advice? I let her know that it was great
who had a strong desire for an authentically
that her daughter had the talent to be admitted
Catholic liberal arts education. He worked as
to a top school, but given the family’s financial
a shepherd for three years beforehand to ob-
situation and the fact that the school wasn’t
tain the funding he needed. He saw the value
offering any scholarship money, I didn’t see
of the education and was willing to make the
how it was practical for either the parents or
necessary sacrifices.
the daughter to end up with that level of debt.
One final note. Students may have the
I suggested approaching a second-tier school
best of intentions to work hard when they fin-
where she might receive a substantial scholar-
ish school to pay their debts down. But it’s a

46 The Newman Guide

Phil Lenahan

The listener wasn’t pleased. She asked ommended in The Newman Guide (first edition)
how I could limit her daughter’s possibilities. was about $3,000 less than at other Catholic in-
As a parent, I want certain outcomes from stitutions and about $1,000 less than the aver-
higher education for my children. I want a age private college or university.
Catholic college or university to help my son • Comparing Newman Guide schools to
or daughter develop into a godly young adult other private institutions, the average student’s
with a deep love for Our Lord and the Catho- financial aid package included a significantly
lic Church, and to be prepared to contribute larger portion of direct institutional aid (39
to society as a responsible adult using his or percent vs. 29 percent) and a smaller portion
her talents in an appropriate way. I can do that of student loans (13 percent vs. 17 percent), im-
within my financial means, even if it requires posing a smaller debt burden on students and
giving up some of the prestige and trappings their families.
of expensive private universities, or perhaps • Student debt upon graduation was, on
delaying college to avoid costly debt. average, about $2,000 less than at other private
If you are committed to a Catholic educa- institutions and $1,400 less that at other Catho-
tion but simply don’t have the resources, con- lic colleges.
sider enrolling for the first two years to get a Now, none of this means that you should
solid Catholic, liberal arts foundation and a consider any of the colleges and universities
healthy campus environment, then transfer to that are recommended in The Newman Guide
a state university to finish a major. Or consider simply because, on average, they cost less.
a community college for the first two years, While some of the institutions are bargain-
during which the student can continue to live priced, a few are in the top quarter of Catholic
at home and save money. Both options are not colleges and universities ranked by expense.
ideal, but they can be ways to dramatically re- (Although it should be noted that even the
duce the overall cost of college. higher-priced schools in this guide are quite
It’s not easy for any parent to limit a son’s reasonable in comparison to institutions in the
or daughter’s options, but fortunately there is same state. Higher education costs vary great-
a great variety of Catholic institutions avail- ly by region and state, something to consider
able to Catholic families, including those that if you are not committed to either the east or
are profiled in this guide because of their out- west coast.)
standing Catholic identity. The colleges and universities in this Guide
And I have great news: According to a cost were selected because of their strong Catholic
analysis commissioned and published by The identity, and what the cost analysis demon-
Cardinal Newman Society in February 2009, strates is that you don’t have to pay more—in-
the colleges and universities that were recom- deed, you can pay much less—for a quality
mended in the first (2007) edition of The New- education that ensures the outcomes we dis-
man Guide are generally less expensive than cussed earlier.
other Catholic and private institutions. If you can find what you need in one of
You can read the full report—“College Af- these institutions, and you have planned care-
fordability and Catholic Identity” by Dr. An- fully how to pay for it, then you will have
drew Gillen, research director of the Center invested wisely in the final preparation of a
for College Affordability and Productivity in young man or woman to know, love and serve
Washington, D.C.—at God.
But among the study’s findings are that:
• Average tuition for students at the
faithful Catholic colleges and universities rec-

The Newman Guide 47

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