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Do Catholic colleges and universities live up to the Gospel imperative for social justice?

In the Fall 2012 semester, 77 percent of 191 Catholic colleges and universities enrolled freshman classes with 25 percent or higher proportion of Pell grant students, a marker for acute student financial need. (Data from IPEDS, the federal data system for higher education.) Moreover, nearly one-quarter of Catholic colleges had freshman classes with more than 50 percent Pell grantees.

Catholic colleges
Patricia McGuire is the president of Trinity Washington University.

Such a broad-based commitment of Catholic higher education to the education of low income students belies a recent Hechinger Report story, also carried in Time magazine online, that declared in its headline that, “Catholic colleges tell poor students: Go somewhere else.”

What caused this disconnect? While the story reported that “Some Catholic institutions do succeed at keeping down costs for students with family earnings low enough to qualify for federal Pell grants — generally, $30,000 a year or less,” it included a table of schools that don’t, and was specific about them, by name: 10 Catholic institutions, including The Catholic University of America, Notre Dame, Villanova and several Jesuit schools appeared on the list.

Related: Catholic colleges tell poor students: Go somewhere else

Let those institutions defend themselves.

But as I show here, looking at just these 10 schools is a disservice to the real social justice commitments of the majority of Catholic colleges and universities.

“Do Catholic colleges and universities live up to the Gospel imperative for social justice?”

With 85 percent of the first year class eligible to receive Pell Grants, and a median family income for those first years of just about $25,000, Trinity Washington University (historically, Trinity College) is emblematic of the commitment to social justice found among scores of Catholic colleges, a list dominated by schools founded by religious orders of women. The nuns who established more than 100 Catholic colleges in the 19th and 20th centuries believed deeply in the power of a higher education to achieve social justice. In many cases, the sisters acted in response to discrimination against women. When the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur founded Trinity College in Washington in 1897 because Catholic University refused admission to women at that time, the Archbishop of Washington Cardinal James Gibbons wrote to thank them for relieving the Church of the “embarrassment” of denying women access to higher education.

Trinity today continues to demolish barriers that inhibit access to higher education for marginalized students. Today’s barriers are money, family responsibilities, poor preparatory education and the discouraging effects of chronic discrimination. Trinity joins colleges like New Rochelle in New York, Ursuline in Cleveland, Alverno in Milwaukee, Marygrove in Detroit and Mount St. Mary’s in Los Angeles that have become essential institutions serving low income students in their cities.

More than 95 percent of Trinity’s 2,300 students today are African American, Latina and recent immigrants. Trinity’s full-time tuition of $21,950 is relatively low compared with the $30,000-plus pricetags of other private universities in Washington, but Trinity students have great need. Trinity discounts tuition for all students by an average of 40 percent; the total volume of Trinity institutional aid is more than $9 million, a significant sum for a university with an operating budget of less than $40 million and an endowment of just about $13 million.

Related: Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite, new figures show

More than half of Trinity’s students are residents of the District of Columbia; Trinity educates more D.C. residents than any private university in the nation, and Trinity’s percentage of Pell grantees is higher than that of the University of the District of Columbia. Trinity works in partnership with philanthropists who provide millions in outside scholarships to supplement Trinity’s own grants. Trinity also provides scholarships for Dreamers, undocumented students who also receive supplemental support through an outside scholarship program. Federal net price calculations exclude these outside scholarships, making the net price data unreliable as a measure of the students’ final bills.

Through the School of Professional Studies, Trinity provides extensive support for hundreds of part-time adult students striving to change their lives. Trinity is the only university in D.C. that offers a degree program east of the Anacostia River in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. The federal data system does not capture data on these part-time adult students for whom coming back to school translates into better jobs and improved economic security for their families.

One of the great strengths of American higher education is its diversity, and Catholic higher education shares this virtue. The Catholic sector includes great research universities, distinguished women’s colleges, a great historically Black university (Xavier of Louisiana), schools with mission charisms from diverse of religious orders, and institutions with deep commitments to serve low income students from local neighborhoods. A few factoids from the federal data system can hardly describe with any sense of fairness the good work done by the vast range of institutions in this sector. Using isolated data points taken out of context for a few universities to label an entire sector as failing distorts the truth about the real service of Catholic higher education to some of the most marginalized students in our nation.

Patricia McGuire is the president of Trinity Washington University.

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