Elijah Fisher is not Catholic, but he studies in classrooms where crosses hang, socializes in a dorm where the Eucharist is celebrated and crisscrosses a campus where Holy Cross priests and brothers are more common than a pre-exam all-nighter. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Fisher, a junior studying theater and music at the University of Portland, wanted to attend a college that challenged him academically. But what he values most about U.P. is harder to quantify: a strong community and “the chance to gain new insights about myself,” he said.
Fisher is among the 45 percent of undergraduate students enrolled in U.S. Catholic colleges and universities who are not Catholic, according to 2015 data from the Higher Education Research Institute.
Although less expensive than many private secular institutions, the average cost of Catholic schools is nearly three-times more than public universities: $28,875 for the former compared to $9,410 for in-state tuition at public colleges, based on numbers reported by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and the College Board.
So what motivates non-Catholics to opt for a pricier choice?
A commitment to service and truth attract some, according to administrators.
Michael Lovette-Colyer, assistant vice president for University Ministry at the University of San Diego, a private Catholic school, said they offer academic rigor within a supportive environment, but with “an added value.”
“Catholic schools are not just preparing students for a job, although they do that, but helping students become their most authentic selves.”
Lovette-Colyer said he believes many professors at Catholic universities see their job as “helping students discern a vocation.” Some are called to the priesthood or religious life but we are all called to a vocation, or a particular path using our unique gifts, said Lovette-Colyer. The commitment to draw forth a student’s potential is something Catholics and non-Catholic note in classrooms and university culture, finding it attractive even if they “can’t always articulate it,” he said.
At U.P., Fisher has prized self-discovery in both classes and retreats, with the latter a chance to “learn about myself by learning about others and opening myself up in new ways,” he said.
Father James Gallagher, director of campus Mministry at U.P., said a Catholic environment can provide students from other faiths or no faith the opportunity to explore questions of belief and purpose.
Lovette-Colyer noted that a growing number of Muslim students find Catholic schools a comfortable place to study because “they are on a campus where we understand people who pray multiple times a day; we might do it differently, but we aren’t put off by it.”
Hannah Mitchek is a freshman at U.P and a nondenominational Christian. She says her faith has been deepened and challenged at the university and that she’s “even embraced some parts of the Catholic faith.” She’s found eucharistic adoration “a peaceful time to talk to God,” she said.
‘A gift of fresh eyes’
Aaron Anderson, who describes himself as a secular humanist, was drawn to Marylhurst University for its commitment to service. The Catholic liberal arts school located about 10 miles south of Portland was founded, like numerous U.S. Catholic universities, by a religious order — the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. The 38-year-old Anderson shares a profile with many who enroll at Marylhurst — not Catholic, older than the average undergrad and seeking a second career.
Double majoring in environmental science and English, Anderson hopes to become a science writer; “environmental justice is social justice,” he said. He believes the school’s legacy of service “very much springs from the sisters, who are about putting their values into practice.”
Even at schools like Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, which is 95 percent Catholic, non-Catholic students find value beyond academics. Known for its commitment to the magisterium, a canon of books from the Western intellectual tradition and Socratic discussion, the college has a focus on objective truth — not always embraced by secular institutions.
“The great books curriculum has broad appeal, but so does our approach to studying them,” said John Daly, head of admissions. “We approach learning with an eye to discovering the truth in the books,” he said. “We come at it not through a Catholic lens, but draw from common experience.”
Both Daily and Lovette-Colyer believe students from a non-Catholic background enrich a Catholic college or university. “They are a gift of fresh eyes,” said Lovette-Colyer. “They invite dialogue and dialogue is where learning happens.”