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A Guide to Catholic-Affiliated Universities

CollegeVine’s database of U.S. colleges and universities lists 163 school’s as officially Catholic-affiliated. The role of faith on campus varies widely across these 163 institutions; it can influence everything from housing to the curriculum to the availability of religious services on campus. Though the differences between Catholic-affiliated schools range from subtle to substantial, below we’ve compiled some underlying characteristics that the majority of these schools share. In this post, we also list the top Catholic-affiliated institutions in the U.S. and go through some other considerations for applicants who are considering applying to Catholic-affiliated universities. 


College Life and Catholic Values

Many students choose Catholic-affiliated colleges and universities in order to simultaneously pursue academic and spiritual growth on a campus where faith intertwines with every aspect of college life. At the majority of Catholic-affiliated schools, the curriculum is influenced by Catholic teachings; often, students are required to take theology courses to deepen their understanding of their faith. Beyond this, Catholic-affiliated universities might have extensive course offerings related to the faith, like classes on the history of Catholicism or how Catholicism has affected the world we inhabit today. 


To understand how many Catholic-affiliated universities approach the relationship between education and religion, it’s useful to consider the words of prominent Catholic thinkers. Pope John Paul II offered insight into the mutually beneficial relationship between scholarship and spirituality when he wrote, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world in which both can flourish.”


Because of the substantial role religion plays at Catholic-affiliated institutions, religious students often find it comforting and inspiring to be surrounded by students with similar beliefs and values. Faith-focused students will also find easily accessible religious activities on campus, like Mass or Bible study. Some institutions, like Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, go one step further—the school produces The Edmundite Show, a program that streams on YouTube and educates viewers about the Society of St. Edmund, a 175-year-old religious order. 


The values and beliefs that many students and faculty at Catholic-affiliated colleges share can  promote a sense of community on campus. These communities are often grounded in a strict code of conduct, which promotes values like honesty, integrity, community responsibility, and service to God.


Catholic Doctrine

One of the differentiating characteristics of Catholic-affiliated schools is the particular doctrine or religious order with which the institution is aligned. A school’s alignment with a specific doctrine will shape various aspects of the school, from its mission statement to its values to its course offerings. For example, schools that come from a Jesuit tradition, such as Georgetown, Boston College, and Holy Cross, emphasize scholarly excellence and service to others. In contrast, Saint Michael’s College, the world’s only Edmundite College (the Society of Saint Edmund is an order of priests who came to Vermont from France), emphasizes service, hospitality, and education. 


Students who are considering a Catholic education will likely encounter institutions affiliated with  various Catholic orders, including Dominican, Franciscan, and Benedictine traditions. If you are familiar with or have a preference for a particular Catholic order, be sure to factor this into your college decision-making process. And, whether or not you’re familiar with specific Catholic orders, be sure to carefully research how a school’s specific Catholic affiliation would influence your day-to-day life on campus!


Attending a Catholic-Affiliated College as a Non-Catholic

According to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), only 43.4% of students attending four-year Catholic colleges and universities identify as Catholic, with those students’ parents and guardians identifying as Catholic by only a slightly greater margin—46.3% for parent/guardian one and 45.9% for parent/guardian two. In other words, the majority of students attending Catholic-affiliated institutions are non-Catholics. 


Many non-Catholic students choose schools for reasons independent of their religious foundations; these students might be focused on other features of the school, like academic standards, prestige, or career resources and alumni networks. College is also a time for students to explore and expose themselves to varied ideas and values—this can make immersion in a Catholic community appealing to curious college-bound students. Alternatively, if a school’s beliefs run so contrary to a student’s beliefs, a school’s faith-based culture might be uncomfortable or distracting for that student. This brings us to our next topic: a school’s fit…


Choosing a Catholic College or University 

Finding an institution that fits your needs, interests, and preferences is vital to ensuring your long-term success at school. The intention of Catholic-affiliated colleges and universities is to foster students’ academic and spiritual growth. Students—Catholic and non-Catholic—who are considering attending a Catholic-affiliated university should consider the importance of building relationships on-campus; prospective students should consider how attending an institution where faith is central will influence those relationships. 


Of course, you should ensure that the schools you are considering fit your other preferences—outside of religion. Be sure to consider school size, location, and degree programs, as well as extracurricular options and other on-campus resources. Check out What Does It Mean to ‘Fit’ With A College? to learn more about finding a college that’s right for you.



The Expense of a Catholic-Affiliated College  

It’s important for students who are considering attending a Catholic-affiliated college to recognize that all Catholic-affiliated schools are private institutions. This means that in-state students do not receive a lower tuition rate. 


Just how large a difference can this make to cost? According to U.S. News, the average cost of tuition and fees at an in-state public university in 2018-2019 was $9,716. By contrast, students at private colleges paid, on average, $35,676. That’s a 73% higher price tag!  


If you’re excited about the idea of attending a Catholic-affiliated university, but are put off by cost considerations, don’t despair! Many Catholic-affiliated universities do offer institutional scholarships to subsidize part of the cost of tuition, and you can also apply for outside scholarships and loans. 


If you think scholarships will be necessary to support your Catholic-affiliated university experience, be sure to research and apply for financial aid and scholarships early in your application process. This will give you time to assess the financial feasibility of attending the Catholic-affiliated universities that interest you. For tips on securing scholarship funds, check out our scholarship strategies post! 


Applying to a Catholic-Affiliated School 

When applying to Catholic-affiliated schools, students should be prepared to answer questions about their faith or their perspective on the institution’s faith-based philosophy. For example, Notre Dame’s application includes this prompt:


As a Catholic university, we strive to be a community in which the dignity of each person is respected and everyone can truly flourish. Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., challenged our community to reflect on the following statement: “Let us never do anything to make another member of our community feel unwelcome, and let us not stand by if we see others doing so. Either we walk together in mutual support, or we do not walk at all. Either we are all Notre Dame, or none of us are.” Tell us about a time when you walked with others.


Similarly, applicants seeking to enroll in a Catholic-affiliated school can strengthen their applications by highlighting their faith and values. You can do this by focusing on faith-based extracurricular activities and participation within a church, or by highlighting other ways that you embody the school’s values, even if you are not involved in expressly Catholic activities.


The U.S.’s Most Prestigious Catholic-Affiliated Schools

Just as Catholic-affiliated schools encompass a wide range of religious adherence, they also stretch across a broad spectrum of prestige and academic rigor. Of the 163 Catholic-affiliated schools in CollegeVine’s database, 13 schools are graded as prestigious by U.S. News and six are rated as ultra-prestigious. Listed below are the nation’s top-rated Catholic-affiliated institutions. 


U.S. News Prestigious Catholic-Affiliated Schools

  • College of St. Benedict (CSB)
  • DePaul University
  • Duquesne University
  • Loyola University Chicago
  • Marquette University
  • Saint Louis University (SLU)
  • Saint Mary’s College of California (St. Mary’s)
  • Seton Hall University
  • St. Michael’s College
  • Thomas Aquinas College
  • University of Dayton
  • University of San Diego (USD)
  • University of San Francisco (USF)


U.S. News Ultra Prestigious Catholic-Affiliated Schools  

  • Boston College (BC)
  • College of the Holy Cross (Holy Cross)
  • Fordham University
  • Georgetown University
  • University of Notre Dame
  • Villanova University


Wrapping it Up 

Colleges and universities affiliated with Catholicism are a great choice for both Catholics and non-Catholics. They can provide an opportunity to deepen or explore faith in a supportive community, and many Catholic-affiliated schools offer an all-around exceptional education— after all, Notre Dame and Georgetown are both ranked in the top 25 of U.S. News’ National University Rankings. However, before applying to or attending a Catholic-affiliated institution, you should consider how religion influences the school’s curriculum, campus life, and culture. You should also weigh how the school’s values align with your own beliefs and ideals. 


If you still have questions about attending a school affiliated with a religion, read our blog A Guide to Religiously-Affiliated Colleges.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.