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August 25, 2011 / Katie Steelman

Catholic colleges and the misconceptions about them

Despite the “Saint” in the name, the steeple protruding out of the top of Kearney Hall and the few statues scattered around campus of guys in robes, I never got the impression that my college — St. John Fisher College — was overwhelmingly Catholic.

Fisher’s current mission statement says that the college is “in the Catholic tradition” rather than calling it a “Catholic college.” The statement also says that “Fisher welcomes qualified students, faculty and staff regardless of religious or cultural background.” I, being a kinda-sorta/non-practicing Catholic, accepted this message wholeheartedly; I personally never had any reason to think Fisher wouldn’t accept me or anyone else with varying beliefs.

Apparently some people had different assumptions. My friend, a self-proclaimed atheist, said that when she transferred to Fisher her junior year she expected everyone to be very religious and was afraid this would make her uncomfortable; but when she got there she saw that this wasn’t the case. Another friend told me she knew someone that chose not to attend Fisher because of these same concerns.

To those that are wary of attending a Catholic college, let me tell you that most of these institutions are really not much different from others.

-A college doesn’t have to have “Saint” or “Holy” or “Our lady of” in the name to be a Catholic college. Close to 250 colleges and universities in the United States identify themselves as Catholic (according to, but they vary on how they define their Catholic status and what that actually means in terms of student life and academics.

-Many Catholic institutions require students to take one or two religion courses as part of the college core. Fisher offers classes on specific religions (including but not limited to Roman Catholicism), comparative religion and ethics to fulfill this requirement. I have taken a few of these classes and found them to be revealing and thought-provoking. And, importantly, not at all preachy. In fact these classes made me more aware and understanding of the different views that are out there.

-Catholic colleges will also most likely have a chapel on campus where students, faculty and sometimes community members can attend mass. However, attendance is completely optional depending on the college bylaws.

-One of the things most Catholic-identifying colleges do say about themselves is that they advocate the education of the “whole student,” which means academically, socially and, if they choose, spiritually. They promote tolerance and generosity and encourage the active involvement of students in the community, often supporting various service projects.

I would hope these positive qualities would attract students and outweigh the misconceptions and assumptions that might be scaring them away.

For more on finding the right college for you, go to or try our College Match tool!


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