Sacrificing for Catholic Schools

It's that time of year. That time when teachers and administrators are already thinking about next year, considering courses to add or drop, maintenance issues that need to be addressed, and the need to hire, or not hire, new faculty. We're already reflecting on athletic seasons and highlights and lowlights, wondering what changes need to be made for the next game, the next competition, the next match. As my colleague notes, we have one foot in this semester, and one foot in next semester.   

I think about this from the perspective of my role as the director of admissions, and this time of year always turns my mind toward finances. Conversations will soon focus on tuition, and we will ask parents to pay a significant sum of money to enroll at our school -- for some, an amount that equals a year's mortgage payment, or assistance to a sick relative, or braces, or simply food and water. On top of this, parents have retreat fees and activity fees and athletic fees. For many families, the gas money -- now, almost $4/gallon -- to get here is exorbitant.

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As parents consider their tuition obligation, it can become a daunting prospect. The vast majority of our feeder schools are public, so the idea of having to pay for their child's education presents parents with new challenges -- and questions. Inevitably, parents want to know: What am I paying for? What am I getting when I pay roughly $11,000 a year for a Catholic, Jesuit education? What . . . difference does it make?

There are various ways of answering that question. One parent told me that if public education is like coach seating, a private Catholic school should be first class. Everything just has to be better. Students have to receive more attention. Teachers must teach better. Coaches must win more. Emails must be returned more quickly. Students must gain acceptance into top colleges and universities. SAT and AP scores should be higher. Understandably, many parents want to see results that are measurable. They need some clear reassurance that this is an investment worth making.  

My colleagues and I, while not disagreeing with parents, often frame the answers in terms of the classic categories of Catholic education -- the faith formation, the community, the concern for the student's personal and spiritual well-being, the general academic rigor. We emphasize what Jesuit schools, following the lead of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., have for many decades: forming "men and women with and for others."

No matter how we frame the argument for Catholic education, no matter how we articulate the worth of the investment, it has to be recognizably, demonstrably excellent. My principal captures it nicely. Speaking of public schools nearby, he says to us, "If you can get it for free down the street, why pay to get it here?" In other words, if we are not offering something above and beyond what students can receive without paying tuition, why expect families to pay tuition? 

I believe, of course, in Catholic education, and I'm blessed to be at a school that, in very good ways, does it differently. But even with the worst of the recession (knock on wood, Hail Mary) behind us, I'm more aware than ever of the financial sacrifice that many parents make so their child can attend a Catholic school. Even with generous financial aid, many parents pay hundreds of dollars a month, sometimes close to a thousand. In signing their tuition contract, most families are basically purchasing anxiety. They are purchasing the anxiety that comes with any major monetary commitment. 

I have no great insight here, except to steer grateful attention to the acts of faith that families put in Catholic schools. They don't have to be there. They don't have to pay for education. But they believe in it. Even if they're not quite sure why, they give it a go. They sign the contract, and they, to borrow from Christ, "go out into the deep." To those parents, I want to say: Thank you.  

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