Should You Choose Your Child's College?
Teachable Moments from our April issue
By Marybeth Hicks
Q. Our son has been accepted to several good colleges, including two excellent Catholic universities that are known for their adherence to Catholic teaching. He also got accepted into three other schools—one big state school and two small liberal arts colleges. We’re obviously very proud that he worked hard throughout high school and has some good options for his education.
Here’s the dilemma: Although we encouraged him to apply to a variety of schools, the closer he gets to making a decision, the more my husband and I are hoping he chooses one of the two Catholic universities. In fact, my husband is considering telling our son the only schools we will pay for are the Catholic colleges and he’s free to choose one of the other schools as long as he plans to pay for it himself with student loans.
I’m conflicted about that strategy and worried it will alienate our son. It also feels unfair to have given him the option to apply to several schools with the understanding we would help with his college expenses, only to change gears in the middle of the process.
On the other hand we are deeply concerned that schools without a strong Catholic identity will undermine the religious teaching we have provided to our son. We hear stories of friends’ children who go off to college and end of up leaving the Church, and we are desperate to avoid this outcome for our son. Should we make the college choice for him, or at least narrow it to the Catholic colleges?
A. Many Catholic parents worry that their children will “lose their faith” when they head out into the world. Going to college is a time of new experiences when young people are confronted with conflicting ideas—many of which undermine the tenets of the faith you have worked so hard to instill. The prospect that their children might leave the Church prompts some parents to restrict their children’s choices and require that they attend a Catholic college or university.
But we know that even at Catholic colleges and universities, ideas often are presented that conflict with the teachings of the Church. The value of academic and intellectual freedom often seems to trump the truth, and this is distressing to many parents—especially if they’re footing the bill for an expensive college education.
I can understand why you might be tempted to require your son to attend one of the Catholic schools to which he’s been accepted, especially if they are among those with a declared commitment to teaching only those ideas that are faithful the magisterium. But before you pull the purse strings in an effort to control the outcome of your son’s college decision, consider what’s at stake.
First, you risk eroding the trust between you and your son. If, up to now, you have allowed him to consider several options for his education, including secular schools, without putting parameters around his decision, it would be unfair now to declare that you will only help financially if he chooses one of the schools you prefer. You apparently trusted that he would seek out suitable schools, and if you’ve been talking and deliberating together throughout the process, it may seem controlling that you’re now trying to steer his decision.
Second, if your concern is for his long-term spiritual development, you shouldn’t assume that simply attending a Catholic college or university will assure that your son’s faith will grow, just as you shouldn’t presume that attending a secular college will necessarily undermine his faith. The pursuit of the spiritual life is a personal journey that can and will take place no matter where he goes if he is open to it. Secular schools have ministries for Catholic students, and many of those are as vibrant and nurturing as any Catholic community he might find.
Finally, it’s scary for parents to send a son or daughter out into the world no matter where they go. But recall that you have spent the past 18 years preparing your son for just this season of his life. Will he question is faith? Probably—and let’s hope so to some degree! The Lord has given your son free will—just as he gave you—for the very purpose of choosing Jesus Christ as his Savior and Redeemer. As I often remind parents, Jesus has withstood the probing questions of young adults for more than 2,000 years, and he is up to the task with your son, too.
I’m guessing you have helped your son to be discerning in the college selection process. The most helpful and influential thing you can do right now is to pray for and with him about his choice, and then step back and let the Holy Spirit guide his decision.