A Liberating Education

A Liberating Education

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Thomas Aquinas College was founded in response to the decline of Catholic higher education evident in the late 1960s, and in accordance with the Second Vatican Council’s encouraging of Catholic laity  to take a more active part in “the explanation and defense of Christian principles.”  The College founders proposed to establish a new Catholic institution that was determined to pass on the great intellectual patrimony of our civilization and the wisdom of the Church’s greatest thinkers, and to do so in complete fidelity to the Church and her Magisterium.

Thus, amid this great turmoil and disintegration, and in spite of the dominant relativism and skepticism in higher education, Thomas Aquinas College came to life. This new college would be dedicated to renewing what is best in the Western intellectual heritage and to conducting liberal education under the guiding light of the Catholic faith. The College welcomed its first freshman class to its Santa Paula, California campus in 1971.

The years since have been exciting ones of great growth and increasing recognition. In this exclusive Regina Magazine interview, Anne Forsyth, Director of College Relations, gives her perspective on the school and its success.

Q. What kind of young person is attracted to your school?

All kinds, really.  People sometimes think that because we offer only one and the same fully-integrated, 4-year program of studies, that our students must walk in lock step.  Not at all. 

Some have tremendous musical talent; others are gifted artists; some are practically-oriented, intent on pursuing careers in law, medicine, engineering after graduation; some come to us already hearing a call to the priesthood or religious life but desiring an education as a basis for the consecrated life.  And there are those you might expect to find at a “liberal arts” school, those who desire to teach, and at all levels. 

Many (between 40-50%) of our entering freshmen are home-schooled.  A steady 5% already have college credits, and some come with BA’s and even MA’s from prestigious institutions in certain practical fields, e.g., engineering) but find that though well-trained, they do not yet have an education. 

Our students come from across the U.S. (only 1/3 come from California, and over 40% come from east of the Mississippi).  We also have foreign students each year.  Predominant among them are Canadians, but we draw form others, mostly English-speaking countries.  This year we have students from Nigeria, Argentina, and Spain, among others.

What these students do have in common is a thirst for what is true, good, and beautiful, and a sense of wonder about creation and the God who made and sustains it.  They are a very intelligent group, and this is necessary to be able to accomplish our rigorous program which includes four years of mathematics and natural science (not your typical liberal arts program!). 

But even more than having “the brains” to do our program, students need to have a deep desire to understand the causes and principles of things, especially for the junior and senior years when the studies become intense – Newton, Descartes, Einstein, the modern philosophers such as Kant and Hegel.  The works by these authors are difficult to read and require real perseverance.  And I didn’t even mention St. Thomas!  The junior and senior theology courses are devoted exclusively to studies of the Summa – law, proofs for the existence of God, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the sacraments.  All wonderful and edifying, but quite difficult.  And then there’s Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics which make up the senior year philosophy curriculum – studies of such abstract notions as place and time, and natural theology, as well.

But even more than having “the brains” to do our program, students need to have a deep desire to understand the causes and principles of things.

All of this is to say that our students are serious students.  There is a great deal of study they must do.  But there is also a great deal of joy among them, and a tremendous sense of fun, outlets for which come in the form of intramural sports, quarterly dances (and more), trips to the beach only 20 minutes away, and hikes in the national forest, literally at our back door.

All of this makes for a community life animated by charity and ordered to the best things.  While not perfect (witness confessions being heard 8 times a day, before and after each Mass), it is a community striving to follow Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Our students are a very intelligent group, and this is necessary to be able to accomplish our rigorous program which includes four years of mathematics and natural science — not your typical liberal arts program!

Q. Given the scarcity of vocations in America, how is your school doing in this regard?

 

Since our founding a steady 10% of our alumni have entered the priesthood and religious life.  As of now, we have 59 alumni priests:  1 is the superior general of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, 7 are pastors of parishes from Alaska to New York, 4 teach in seminaries, and 1 was recently sent to Rome by Cardinal Dolan to study canon law.  Many are serving in parishes; others are monks, e.g., 10 at Clear Creek Monastery and 4 in Norcia.  And we have 4 at the Norbertines in Orange Coutny, and 5 are Dominicans.  In addition, there are at least 30 in seminary.

As for religious – most of our 40 professed alumni are women, though we have a few brothers, as well.  They gravitate to the new, solidly orthodox orders, or those that are being renewed.  We have 8, I believe, with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, one of whom served as president of their Aquinas College for some years.  There are 3 or 4 with Mother Assumpta and the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.  Others are in Europe with teaching and contemplative orders.  Still more are stateside, e.g., two who were recently sent from the Carmelite Monastery in Lincoln, Nebraska, to found a new house in the Bay Area, in Northern California.

All in all, we are truly blessed with alumni vocations.  Our goal is to provide the good soil for God to cultivate, and He seems to be hard at work here. 

A number of years ago, our late president Tom Dillon was asked by the Congregation for Education to give an account of how it is that we could have so many vocations.  They had been astounded to learn of the relatively high number, knowing that we were lay-founded, lay-administered, and co-educational, and wanted to share with their readers “the secret” as it were.  You can find that article on our website.

A number of years ago, our late president Tom Dillon was asked by the Congregation for Education to give an account of how it is that we could have so many vocations.  They had been astounded to learn of the relatively high number, knowing that we were lay-founded, lay-administered, and co-educational, and wanted to share with their readers “the secret…”

Q. Cost is a huge factor these days as students balk at assuming large debts for undergrad degrees. How is your school addressing this?

Our admissions policy is needs-blind.  Students are accepted without any regard to their financial wherewithal.  At that point, they and their families are asked to make a maximum effort toward covering the cost of tuition.  In nearly 80% of cases that effort falls far short of the actual need.  The College, however, has been committed since its beginning that no qualified student ever be turned away for lack of resources.  Because we accept no direct government funding, lest our Catholic identity and academic integrity be compromised, we must, therefore, raise over $4 million annually to cover the financial aid needs of our students.

Our alumni, though young and raising large families, typically on one income, are very generous (we’re #2 in the country on the U.S. News  “Most Loved” by alumni list, based on alumni giving percentages).  But their giving is not sufficient for the need.  It is, therefore, private individuals and foundations who fill the gap.  We think of these benefactors as our “spiritual alumni,” who without having benefit to themselves, yet give generously to our students, seeing them as a kind of leaven for the Church and our culture.

The result is that 100% of our students’ demonstrated need is met each year, a fact for which the College is lauded by college reviews, e.g., the Princeton Review’s “Financial Aid Honor Roll” (it’s worth noting, I think, that TAC is the only Catholic college in the country to be so ranked) and the U.S. News  “Great Schools, Great Price” rankings (again, the only Catholic college on this list).

Our benefactors are our “spiritual alumni,” who without having benefit to themselves, yet give generously to our students because they see them as a kind of leaven for the Church and our culture. The result is that 100% of our students’ demonstrated need is met each year.

For the first $4,000 or so of financial aid, students perform 13 hours/week of work on campus, in the kitchen, on landscaping, working in offices or the library, assisting in the labs, etc.  If more funding is needed, grants are then made accordingly.

Students receiving financial aid must also take out loans, approximately $4000 each year.  But we do cap that at $16,000 or so at the end of 4 years.  Again, it is our benefactors who make it possible for our students not to be strapped by crushing debt after graduation.  And again, we are ranked in the top 25 schools in the country by U.S. News “Least Debt” ranking.

Thomas Aquinas College is ranked in the top 25 schools in the country by U.S. News “Least Debt” ranking.

Q. How would you characterize the formation of young Catholics these days – as opposed to 20 years ago?  Any reason for hope?

These are definitely reasons for hope.

On the other hand, with what one reads  of the culture and the terrible state of education, especially in the public schools, it is hard to be hopeful.   The prevalence of pornography alone, at ever younger ages, is heartbreaking and frightening.  One wonders how we can pull ourselves out of these depths.

For this reason, I am especially grateful to our contemplative alumni who spend their days, months, and years, in prayer, making reparation for the sins of the world and begging for the graces we must have to overcome it.

I am especially grateful to our contemplative alumni who spend their days, months, and years, in prayer, making reparation for the sins of the world and begging for the graces we must have to overcome it. 

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Photos by Duncan Stroik.

 

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