The College Orientation Talk You’ll Never Hear

This week my two daughters go off to college. The younger is beginning her freshman year, so my wife and I are scheduled to participate in various orientation activities. I spent over fifteen years in higher education, and it is always fascinating for me to watch how colleges and universities present themselves to the wider public. Having a pretty good idea of how the sausage is made, I marvel at the techniques of the sausage salesman.

I don’t mean to suggest that the salesman is necessarily a charlatan. The art of persuasion is a legitimate art. Still, there are important things that colleges and universities, including Catholic ones, are not likely to speak about during orientation. On such occasions, both students and parents are shown the glossier features of the institution, while more troubling areas are kept in the dark.

So as I help my daughter load the car with her things I find myself asking: what do students and parents most need to hear as they enter a Catholic institution of higher learning?

It’s best to begin, dear parents and students, by remembering the principle that parents are the primary educators of their children. I know – college students aren’t children and parents at this stage don’t enjoy the same authority they enjoyed in the past. You parents won’t even be able to find out your kids’ grades unless he or she decides to share them with you.

But the principle is still worth recalling, if only to underscore the fact that the college or university is no more and no less than a contract worker in the educational enterprise. You hire a painter to help paint your house, and if he’s no good you fire him and look for another. Go ahead and take the same attitude with regard to your school. While the school itself will want you to consider it your “family” from the moment you step onto the verdant quadrangle, you will remember that the term “family,” even by extension, implies trust. And that trust must be earned.

Second, I implore you to keep in mind that college is not meant to be an Amish Rumspringa. It is not a College Land in which students enjoy the “right” to party or otherwise act like animals, as the weekend reward for five days of hard work. The point of these four years is to bring the moral, intellectual, and spiritual formation begun by your parents to the point where you can contribute to society and to the Church in a constructive, independent way. This is an opportunity to deepen your commitment to your faith and the studies necessary to pursue the Lord’s call with excellence. And at quite a substantial cost – please bear that in mind.


At the same time, parents, your child’s college career is not an opportunity for you to relive your glory days. Yes, it’s fun to put on the spirit wear, attach the school decals to the rear window, and tailgate before the football games. But your primary role in this adventure is not to play, but to make sure the institution is helping form the immortal soul of your child. And if it is, to support those efforts.

Third, dear students and parents, be encouraged that the faculty of your school, upon whom so much depends in the coming years, includes some very good, if not exemplary, people. You will doubtless encounter teachers who embody everything that is good in the Catholic intellectual tradition and who transform the lives of their students in profoundly positive ways.

That said, note well that the faculty of your school also includes those who know very little about the Catholic intellectual tradition – indeed, who may be more ignorant of it than some of their students. Your faculty also will likely include those who are actively working to undermine our tradition. The university “family,” in short, is dysfunctional. Thus you will need a very sure guide to help you navigate the minefield of the curriculum so that a real education will be achieved. Have you identified such a person? Do you even know how to go about identifying such a person?

It’s common to hear talk of this or that institution being a “good school.” But what is the definition of a “good school”? In the Catholic sense, a good school is one in which Catholic truth is the animating spirit of the curriculum and the faculty, in which all studies are ordered in very practical ways to the disciplines of philosophy and theology, and where the intellectual diversity of the faculty is unified by a common understanding of the dignity of the human person and the person’s ability to know reality. Don’t be naïve: there are nowadays very few “good schools” in this sense.

Try this experiment. Go the web page of your school’s English or sociology department and read the department’s mission statement. Does it say anything about the Catholic intellectual tradition? Does it use words or phrases such as “truth” or “beauty” or “human dignity”? If not, take it as a bad sign. It doesn’t necessarily mean that department is in open combat with the Catholic mission of the institution, but it most probably indicates a level of disconnect. That kind of disconnection is rife in Catholic institutions of higher education.

Finally, dear students and parents, please be vigilant. In many ways, you and your family will want to assimilate to the environment of your school. But in other ways, you will need to push back and be counter-cultural. The need to identify will be strong, but don’t let the t-shirt make you complacent. Catholic institutions are in no way immune from the more disastrous impulses of the secular culture.

Wisdom, my friends, is the glorious prize that awaits at the end of the road of these four years. But remember, a roaring lion stalks the roadside, seeking whom he may devour.

Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at

  • John Willson

    Common sense from Dr. McInerny, much appreciated. After 50 years in higher education, almost ten of them at a major Catholic university, I would add this caution to parents (it may be the last major moral/intellectual lesson you can give to your college-age children): Learn the terms “deracinated intellectual” and “ideologue,” and teach them to your students, giving them all the help you can to learn to spot the teachers and administrators who are either one or both. It may save their souls.

    • ThirstforTruth

      Do the readers here a great service by defining those terms ( “deracinated intellectual” and
      “ideologue” ) and how a better understanding of both will be of help to students concerned
      about their souls. It would also help a grandmother “footing” the bill to better understand what
      the importance of these terms in the Catholic education of their grandchildren.

  • Howard Kainz

    Catholic universities now consider it their mission to provide resources for students who are gay, lesbian, trans-sexual, etc. Marquette University just announced the establishment of a “new resource center” to serve LGBTQ students. Marquette’s provost, Dan Myers, commented, “After meeting with
    students, faculty, staff and alumni, it was clear that the center is important
    to our campus community and core to our Guiding Values and our mission as a
    Catholic, Jesuit university. With a more focused charge, the center will be
    able to more effectively deliver programs and resources.”

    • RainingAgain

      If Jesuit, with apologies to Fr Schall and Pope Francis, can they be considered Christian never mind Catholic? New Age seems more accurate.

    • eddie too

      sounds like Marquette, if truth in advertising is to be followed, should be saying that it has created a new campus center where people can come and publicly announce that they are having great difficulties with temptations to engage in sexual sins.
      my personal advice to everyone is to try and keep your sins and your particular temptations to sin between yourself, a good confessor and, if you have one, a mature and prudent spiritual advisor. there is no reason and certainly no responsibility or obligation to reveal to anyone your problems with sexual, or for that matter any other type, temptations.

  • sagehen

    Most Catholic students no longer necessarily prefer a Catholic university over a public or secular private one. As a result, Catholic universities have been incentivized to de-emphasize their commitment to their foundational values in order to broaden their appeal. But it is a losing game to
    simultaneously appeal to an historic Catholic tradition while compromising it away.

    There are a handful of small liberal arts colleges like Thomas Aquinas and Christendom which have managed to remain authentically and unapologetically Catholic in and out of the classroom, but they have a limited appeal to today’s students, who tend to want a broader choice of majors and who
    do not want to spend four years in a Catholic bubble. With the possible exception of Notre Dame, there is not a single large or even mid-sized (3,000+) Catholic university that I can think of which can meet all of the criteria for a “good Catholic school” that Dr. McInerny discussed in this article – and most are moving in the other direction.

    At the same time, Evangelical Christian universities are thriving precisely because they are committed to maintaining a campus environment where students and parents do not have to worry about the concerns Dr. McInerny raised. Some of them, like Pepperdine and Baylor, have risen fairly
    high in the national rankings, presumably because there are plenty of high-achieving students and faculty who are eager to study and work at a university that respects their Christian faith. These universities have proven that it is possible to maintain high academic and conduct standards while increasing enrollment selectivity.

    I have been waiting for a Catholic university president to have the vision to see that this can work for us too. There must be room for at least one university to appeal to a national pool of prospective students who want to receive a genuinely Catholic education in the context of a modern comprehensive university. It certainly beats the alternative, which is to keep fighting a losing battle against state-funded universities which offer a comparable and equally secular education at a cheaper price,

  • drgibbons

    If Notre Dame counts as a ‘good Catholic university,’ then I would encourage you to consider The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

    While parents and students do need to be vigilant even at CUA, the university takes its Catholic identity seriously while also offering a very broad range of majors and schools. I know a lot of serious Catholic students who made it through four years of college more joyful about and solid in their faith than they were when they started — no small thing these days. Not all of the students at CUA take the opportunity to grow in faith and wisdom, but there is certainly a strong cohort who do so. If they make good choices of professors and courses, they can build a liberal arts education that is of much higher quality than the education received by many of the recent Notre Dame graduates I know.

    Too bad CUA is not better known outside of the mid-Atlantic and New England.

    • Daniel McInerny

      As an addendum to this article, let me say that I just dropped off my freshman daughter at The Catholic University of America and was hugely impressed by their orientation and by the fabulous talk to the parents given by President John Garvey, which strongly underscored the Catholic character of the school and the way in which students are called to live the virtues. Orientation never tells the whole story, as I wrote about, but I am greatly encouraged by what I see happening at my alma mater, CUA.

    • Mary A

      As a Notre Dame alumna, may I humbly request that we celebrate the tremendous force for good that CUA is without resorting to disparaging comparisons to Notre Dame? Universities striving to be both authentically Catholic and truly academically rigorous are few and far between, so why not work to support each other rather than focusing on debates over which university in this small but great band of schools is the greatest? Every time I hear an ND alum speak disparagingly of BC or a CUA alum question ND’s value as a Catholic institution of higher learning, I can’t help but be reminded of the Apostles bickering over which among them was the greatest. I know many exceptional young men and women who have graduated from CUA far stronger and more joyful in their faith than when they entered, and a few whose faith was sadly lost during their time at CUA. The very same may be said for the ND grads I know. As a former member of the office of Campus Ministry at Notre Dame – the largest Campus Ministry department of any university in America – I can promise you that there are ample opportunities for ND students to grow in faith and deepen their commitment to be men and women with hope to bring to a world at need. I can also admit that ND still has plenty of room to grow. How much more faithfully, joyfully, and compellingly could we all witness to and work for the joy of the Gospel if we committed to working together? May God continue to bless the good work being done each day at the Catholic University of America, and at the University of Notre Dame.

      • drgibbons

        Sorry I didn’t notice this sooner. I didn’t mean to disparage Notre Dame. It is pretty universally considered the most prestigious Catholic university in this country! They do great things there. However, I have seen young people graduate from Notre Dame having undergone a pretty fragmented and/or uninspired four years of coursework — in spite of the amazing resources there.

        I was just saying that you can get an education as good as that or better at CUA if your child makes good choices. I wasn’t saying that smart choices aren’t also possible at Notre Dame!

        Sorry if it came across as insulting to ND.

        I second your prayer that all of our Catholic universities may prosper and continue to do great work.

  • Mark Osterberg

    There are good and faithful institutions. Officially non-denominational, Hillsdale has a vibrant Mass attending catholic community. Your son or daughter will be confirmed in their faith. They will not need unlearn anything after they graduate.

  • ThirstforTruth

    The late Father Benedict Groeschel when reflecting on the problem of today’s higher institutes of Catholic education, offered that parents serious about the faith of their offspring, might be better
    served at state institutions where there existed a strong Newman society.