Clout and Catholic Education

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Too often, Catholic education, particularly at the high school level, seems to be valued not so much for its moral and religious content as for its prestige in the community, or for its ability to produce graduates who get into the “right” colleges and get higher-paying jobs later on.

In my experience, Catholic high schools tend to be known in their communities as 1) schools rich kids attend, 2) a way to escape poor-quality public schools, 3) athletic powerhouses, or 4) institutions whose graduates enjoy disproportionate wealth and influence — the quality Chicagoans famously call “clout.”

Just today, in fact, I heard someone refer to alumni of a local Catholic high school as a “Catholic mafia” that allegedly dominates local business and politics. Although this characterization is probably not entirely justified, many alums of this particular school do seem to end up in positions of influence in the community.

I would rather that graduates of this school, or any Catholic school, were envied for their generosity, their character, and their love of Christ — though I am certain many of them do display these virtues — than for their ability to get well-paying jobs or get elected or appointed to various public offices.

Unfortunately, recent developments in Illinois are likely to reinforce the latter impression. The Chicago Tribune has published an ongoing series of articles titled “Clout Goes to College,” outlining the role political figures have played in getting students admitted to the University of Illinois main campus in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

In the past 5 years, according to the Tribune, more than 800 applicants received special consideration when applying to UIUC due to the intervention of a public official on their behalf. More than 600 of these “clout list” applicants were recent graduates of Illinois high schools; others were out of state residents or transfer students. In some cases, clout list applicants were admitted over other applicants with higher test scores or grade point averages.

After obtaining records from the university via the Freedom of Information Act, the Tribune has compiled a database of all the high schools from which clout list applicants graduated during the past four years (2005-2009). It can be accessed at

The database does not name these students, but merely indicates how many graduates from each school were included on the clout list at some point in their admissions process. Not all of them were admitted.

With few exceptions, high schools whose graduates appeared on the clout list are either Catholic schools or public schools serving upper-income communities. The majority of clout list applicants came from wealthy suburbs of Chicago.

Out of curiosity I checked to see if the downstate Catholic high school I graduated from had any clout list graduates. It had one. A medium-size public high school in the same area had two clout list graduates. The only other school in the area with a clout list graduate was — you guessed it — another Catholic school.

My curiosity further piqued, I began running the names of other downstate Catholic high schools through the database to see how they fared. Sure enough, more often than not, the highest number of clout list applicants in each community came from the local Catholic high school (although in each case, this number was in the single digits).

Why do Catholic schools appear so frequently on the clout list? Most likely, because the families who can afford to send their children to them place greater emphasis on getting their children into the “right” college by whatever means necessary. While most if not all Catholic schools do provide scholarships or financial aid to families of more modest means, those families are probably grateful to get their child into any college or university they can afford.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with Catholic schools giving their students a high-quality academic education that prepares them well for attendance at most colleges and universities. Nor is there anything wrong with a parent desiring this for their child.

However, this should not be the PRIMARY aim of Catholic education, or the primary motivation for parents to enroll children in Catholic schools. It should be to help their children become saints — in the classic words of the Baltimore Catechism, “to know, love, and serve God in this world and be happy with Him forever in the next.”

Catholic high schools do encourage holiness and generosity in their students in a variety of ways — offering regular Mass and confession, requiring Christian service hours for graduation, sponsoring retreats or days of renewal, sponsoring mission trips and pilgrimages, encouraging vocations awareness, sponsoring pro-life or other service clubs, etc. But in many cases, this does not seem to be what really attracts students to a particular school, or motivates alumni and parents to support it.

I noticed that Protestant schools rarely appeared on the clout lists in the communities I looked up. While these schools can be as expensive as Catholic schools, it’s obvious that parents’ primary motivation for enrolling children in them is to ensure they are taught in a suitable moral and religious environment. It appears that they are thinking more of their children’s eternal salvation than of their earthly success or prestige.

Ironically, UIUC does have one major attraction for Catholic students — St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, one of the biggest and best in the nation, overseen by the Diocese of Peoria. St. John’s Chapel, built in 1926, is an architectural gem, and the Newman Foundation provides far more opportunities for in-depth study and practice of the faith than do many Catholic-in-name-only institutions of higher learning. But, I doubt this was uppermost in the minds of those Catholic high school parents who fought to get their children onto the clout list. (For more information on the St. John’s Newman Center visit

The clout list scandal represents one more chapter in the sorry history of Illinois political corruption. Perhaps that culture might change if Catholic school parents spent more time calling upon the Blessed Mother and the saints to intercede for their children than calling upon their local politician to do so.

What are your thoughts or experiences regarding clout and Catholic education? What kind of reputation do the Catholic schools in your community have — are they regarded primarily as havens for children of the wealthy and powerful, or are they known for the quality of their religious and academic education? If it’s the former, what do you think can or should be done to change that?

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  1. I wonder if it’s also because so many Illinois politicians exercising their clout are Catholic (Quinn, Durbin, Madigan, Daley, Emil Jones, the Strogers, etc.) so their social network, including the people they exercise influence on behalf of, is made up disproportionately of well-to-do Catholics. My downstate, public high school had 1 person, while the local Catholic school also had one.

  2. I serve on the board of two Catholic high schools — my alma mater in Chicago (a south side school not mentioned in any of the Trib articles that I read) and my children’s alma mater in Atlanta. For the most part I agree with Elaine’s observations. That said, I would mention that in my experien the board leaders tend to be very serious about the school’s Catholicity and spiritual environment. Parents, however, are a mixed bag, and it is true that many have misplaced priorities (like most Americans). These schools operate in very competitive environments and must compete for students and teachers, and these constituencies often have imperfect priorities as well. The Chicago school is all boys and could not recruit students successfully without emphasizing athletics. Period. Just a fact of Chicago’s south side. The school’s president and the board view this emphasis as a tactic to attract boys so that we have an opportunity to educate and mold them into genuinely Catholic young gentlemen. The broader community may see us as athletics focused, but the board fully understands the distinction between means and ends. The co-ed school in Atlanta does not need to emphasize athletics quite as much, but does have to spend inordinately on unnecessary resources (in my view) in order to attract students and teachers. Private high schools in Atlanta (mostly non-Catholic) are much better endowed than us and have more attractive facilities. Both schools struggle mightily with keeping tuition as low as possible while balancing difficult budgets. Both schools are aware that a good percentage of students come from Catholic in name only families who are attracted to the educational value (good education at a bargain price compared to competitors). Overall, they do a pretty good job of imparting the faith in what is virtually a quasi-evangelical environment. I serve on many non-profit boards (Salvation Army, United Way, etc), but none are more challenged than the Catholic high schools.

    Finally, I am not as offended at “clout” as some others. I am more offended at the faith-oriented shortcomings of Catholic schools. I’m happy if Catholic kids get to attend U of I, even if assisted by a call or two. I just want them to have a sufficiently well-formed faith that they won’t lose as soon as they leave home.

  3. ability to produce graduates who get into the “right” colleges and get higher-paying jobs later on

    You speak as if this is a bad thing. It’s as bad as holding a dance and asking if a church should have offered a Bible study instead. If the schools are deficient in morality training or religious education, it is fine to complain. To act as if they are values opposed to achievement in industry after graduation or the school’s prestige is just wrong.

  4. Might the “clout” list include a lot of higher-income schools and Catholic schools because they have a better education results, and it’s unlikely that folks on those lists just suddenly got backing now, and have instead had backing to get into the “good” schools the entire time?

  5. M.Z., I never said it was inherently “bad” for Catholic school graduates to get into good colleges or get good jobs. My concern is that when Catholic schools come to be known ONLY or primarily for those things, they may lose some of their potential to be “salt and light” to a fallen world. Just as there’s nothing wrong with a church sponsoring dances, bingo, or other social events, but when that’s ALL a church is known for doing, maybe they need to reexamine their priorities.

    Also, I’m not complaining about the quality of Catholic education so much as the perception that Catholic schools are only for the wealthy and powerful, or are dependent upon them for their survival. Any religious institution that depends upon the wealthy and powerful to survive has to take extra care not to lose sight of its mission.

  6. Fox, I’m sure that kids from higher income schools (private or public) have always had a certain amount of “clout” or “pull” in the college admissions process. In the case of the U of I, however, it appears to have become much more blatant in the last few years. Plus since U of I admission has become highly competitive, anyone who gets in based on clout is more likely to deprive an equally or more qualified middle- or working-class student of admission.

  7. M.Z.,

    I didn’t really understand Elaine as suggesting that worldly achievement or its facilitation is inimical to Catholic values, but that it should be subordinated to faith formation in terms of prioritization. I agree with her that many Catholic families are attracted to Catholic schools for the wrong reasons, and Catholic schools are often tempted to reorient their priorities accordingly. When that happens, “morality training or religious education” suffers. A number of years ago there was quite a public kerfuffle at a very affluent Catholic school when parents accused the school of being “too Catholic,” because the school administration was trying to beef up its religion courses and requirements. Eventually, many of these parents left when as a consequence. The irony is that the high school now sends an inordinate number of grads to Ivy League and other prestigious schools due to the efficacy of its “classical” education.

    The bottom line is that most graduates of Catholic schools are terribly catechized, and that is partly the result of the schools’ understanding that such catechises is not a primary value of most parents. The schools feel pressure to respond to the marketplace by replacing Catholicism with something called “in the Catholic tradition.”

    Finally, I do sense things are getting better. The schools that I serve are very conscious of their Catholic identity, and it is not watered down, even though I suspect (just suspect) that catechesis could be more rigorous. That said, I think high schools struggle with catechesis in part because most Catholic grade schools send students who are largely uncatechized. Most cannot name the seven sacraments or the ten commandments; and very few can explain the types or meanings of grace.

  8. Elaine-
    I’m suggesting that the high school selections are part of the same process as the college, not that the selections themselves are “good.”

    If the kids got into “good” high schools in the same way as colleges, the same objections would exist– moreso for public schools than private, but it’d exist.

  9. MZ — no one said, as far as I can tell, that morality is opposed to achievement. The post was about people who prioritize achievement (and not even real achievement but positions purchased by clout) over moral training. Do you have anything to say about that?

  10. First, you are not going to find too many poor minority schools on the “clout list” because they have their own form of “clout list”, i.e. affirmative action, but it is too un-PC to mention in the public debate on this matter. I see these two forms of clout balancing each other out. As always it is the great majority of Americans in the middle that get s****ed.

    Of course, private universities have their own clout lists. When my daughter was accepted at Notre Dame they made it quite clear that she was admitted during the early admissions process because I was an alumni (she had a near perfect SAT and a 4.0 GPA but alot of ND applicants do). Should public universities be more egalitarian and fair in their admissions process because they are public . . . dream on.

    Secondly, I totally agree that Catholic Schools K-12 & universities have totally lost their initial mission, i.e., to educate Catholic children while keeping them strong in the faith. That is why I have never wasted my money on Catholic Schools for my kids (including my daughter who eventually accepted a full ride academic scholarship to a state school and got nothing from ND). It is also why my parents never spent a dime on Catholic education except my sisters and me except for CCD and when the nuns stopped teaching that in the late 1960’s they even stopped sending us to CCD. [We were poor enough where they didn’t have to pay for me to go to ND – I lived at home, worked and got enough in state scholarship funds to cover the rest.]

    Catholicism as taught in Catholic High Schools consists of call men with Roman collars “Father” and work in soup kitchens on weekends. I’d be shocked to learn of a current Catholic high school graduate who could define “transubstantiation” or discuss the notion of “baptismal regeneration” or list the 7 sacraments. This is why Cathoic Home schooling is growing in some communities – a notion unheard of 40 years ago except in communities without Catholic schools.

    Finally, a couple of years ago Bishop D’Arcy of the South Bend/Fort Wayne, IN Diocese ordered the dismissal of a popular teacher and coach at St. Joseph High School in South Bend because he had married a divorcee and had left the Church to become a Baptist. Parents and staff and faculty members of course were outraged. So, I also agree that Catholic High Schools are just supplying what the public wants – a good secular education with a thin religous veneer. Of course, the religous attitudes of most of these parents have also been shaped by the piss poor religous teaching that they have received from Catholic Schools and Cathoic pulpits during the past 40 years.

  11. I think that Ms. Krewer’s argument is poorly drawn. Her concern is on a. perception of the school by outsiders and b. the desire of parents at a few Catholic schools to get their children into a good college. I don’t see anything about the students themselves!

    The schools can talk about a need for “public relations” work, but the reality is that the school has very little ability to change a perception that “its a sports school” or “its a rich kids’ school.” Such statements, in my experience, are always made by people with no real world exposure to the school, so how much credibility or concern can you put on such statements?

    Whether the parents want their children to go to a good college doesn’t seem to really be connected with whether the high school is a good Catholic school or not. I just don’t see the connection in her argument.

    That’s not to say that every Catholic high school is successful, either academically or spiritually. All Catholic high schools (that existed before Vatican II) were built around a clerical teaching staff. The decline in vocations has resulted in a largely lay teaching staff today. Does that make them less Catholic? Maybe, maybe not, depending on who got hired to replace those priests, nuns and brothers. I am a proud alum of a Catholic high school, which my children also attended. It was also all boys in my day and almost all clerical teachers. Now it’s co-ed and has only a handful of clergy. In my opinion, it is a much better school today, spiritually, academically and socially. This is a school where a survey found that seniors are more likely to attend Mass on Sunday than freshmen. The students have a choice on Friday between getting a jump on homework so they won’t have to do it on the weekend or going to Mass. Over two-thirds of the students choose Mass, including many of the people of other faiths.
    In my book, that’s a school that is religiously successful. But it has a reputation in the community as being only for athletes and only for rich kids.

    I would like to hear discussion about people of other faiths attending “Catholic” schools. Should “non-Catholics” be allowed to attend? How large a portion of the student body should be Catholic? Perhaps one can think about what the mission of the school is. Is it to teach Catholic kids so they will continue as Catholics? Is it to help raise the future of the students who otherwise face a bleak future, regardless of their religious faith? I’d point to the parallel of Catholic hospitals. Are they Catholic enough? How do you decide what ‘Catholic enough’ means?

  12. If opposition between secular achievement and religious instruction was not being attempted, the comparison shouldn’t have been made. I remember talking to a Jewish graduate of Marquette High School. He felt he understood the Catholic faith adequately. He went to that school in part because of the hockey program. Was this a bad thing?

    I have nothing against trying to improve religious education. Serving on two school boards, Mr. Petrik is probably well aware that the parents that send their children to these schools for prestige and/or academics are the same parents that write large checks. These parents are given the deference they are given, because politicians (and the best pastors are good politicians) are willing to work with what they have in order to improve rather than tear what’s working down and create unnecessary animus. As seen from the Notre Dame saga, the one thing you couldn’t say about Notre Dame was that it was a pauper. (Yes, I know blessed are the poor, and I’ve embraced that more than I cared to have.) There have been more than a few start ups that have attempted to embrace the faith alone and ignore things like achievement or money only to find themselves tits up.

    Finally, I agree with Mr. Petrik that things are improving at a lot of schools. Certainly there is nothing wrong with encouraging that improvement.

  13. would like to hear discussion about people of other faiths attending “Catholic” schools. Should “non-Catholics” be allowed to attend?

    I rather like the idea of non-Catholics in Catholic schools– partly because of the witnessing opportunity, partly because I have seen what it results in– a lady friend who recently passed went to a Catholic school when she was a kid, because it was the “best” school and that’s all her parents cared about. Sixty years later, though still a (highly irascible) vague Christian, she would jump down the throat of anyone who tried to spread the usual “Catholics worship Mary” type BS. She was better at defending the Church than most Catholics I know!

    I’d point to the parallel of Catholic hospitals. Are they Catholic enough? How do you decide what ‘Catholic enough’ means?

    My book? They follow Catholic teachings as related to their work, and allow or support the action on those teachings that aren’t related to their work. (don’t want to get mission bloat, it would make them not as good as hospitals)

  14. I have no problem at all with non-Catholics attending Catholic schools, but would not want any Catholic kids displaced by non-Catholics without good reason. In general, a Catholic school’s primary mission is to serve the Catholic community by educating its children in a manner that is consonant with our faith.

    To MZ’s earlier point, quite frankly some of the most ardent Catholic parents are also the most generous, though that certainly is not always the case. The idea that somehow the financially successful are not as good Catholics as those of more modest means (which is not at all what MZ said) is just a silly conceit. I have observed little correlation. Many of our wealthier families are quite devout, and also quite generous, but certainly not all.

  15. If opposition between secular achievement and religious instruction was not being attempted, the comparison shouldn’t have been made.

    You certainly have a point . . . CS Lewis notes somewhere, maybe in a letter, that readers are often like witless sheep who will take the first detour possible, even if it wasn’t intended.

  16. I too have no problem with non-Catholics attending Catholic schools; in fact some of the first Catholic schools were set up in predominantly non-Christian areas as “mission schools”.

    To some extent a Catholic school cannot fully control how OTHERS in the community, who aren’t associated with the school, perceive it. But I’m sure there are other times when taking a look at oneself “from the outside” is helpful and a needed corrective.

    A big part of the problem with Catholic education as it exists today is that very few if any schools can survive on tuition alone — charging every parent the full cost of their child’s education would put it out of reach of all but the most wealthy — so a lot of time and effort has to be spent on fundraising and on extracurricular activities such as sports that make money for the school. Which usually translates into 1) hitting up wealthy alumni and business people for donations, 2) holding a lot of fundraising events (bingo, carnivals, auctions, dinner/dances, etc.), and 3) recruiting the best athletes.

    Now again, these things are not inherently evil or wrong in themselves, but they CAN become a diversion from the schools main mission if its administration isn’t careful. What to do about that?

    Perhaps the most radical approach has been taken by the Diocese of Wichita, Kans., where ALL Catholic schools are funded completely by tithing and NO tuition is charged to any Catholic student. This is done through a comprehensive stewardship program that emphasizes giving of “time, talent, and treasure” as a way of life. As a result, its schools are thriving (as are its priestly vocations) and other dioceses have taken interest in this approach. Whether it can be successfully transplanted to large urban dioceses, particularly those with large numbers of recent immigrants, remains to be seen; but I think it is worth looking at.

  17. Elaine, I like the comments about funding. My pastor is the oldest of five boys in the family. His parents moved to a house down the street from the Catholic church. His non-Catholic parents went there and asked how much it would cost to send their children there. The answer was $500 a year (This would be back in the ’50s) if they were not Catholic and free if they were Catholic. “So we became Catholic!”
    Parishes in our archdiocese are limited to a certain percentage of their budget that can be devoted to the parish school (if any.) The rest of the cost has to come from the parents. I think there are good arguments for at least some funding to come from parents. First, you do not value anything that is free. You have no “skin in the game.” Second, parents have to be responsible for their children and that includes their education. The entire parish should not have to pay the family’s expenses. I’m sensitive to those parishioners who do not have children in the parish school. I guess the parallel is public education, where the general public pays the whole bill and they do so in a grudging fashion.

    There are also Catholic schools that would not exist if tuition were the only source of their income. I am familiar with a “Nativity” middle school locally, that only admits children whose families can’t pay (although they do charge $20 a month, for the first reason I mentioned above.) Their student body are from low income homes, almost all minority, almost all not Catholic, some are immigrants. They typically come to 6th grade with reading and math skills at the 2nd or 3rd grade level.

    My point is that there simply isn’t enough money to have a school like that if you only look at the neighborhood community. Their ability to raise funds from the Catholic community in our city is all that stands between these children and life on the streets. So does it make a difference if most of the students are Catholic?

    You posit that fund raising should not be a diversion from the school’s main mission. On the face of it, I agree. I just have a hard time analyzing how I would know, at a specific school, if it is a diversion.

    There is a Catholic high school in our city that puts the students to work to pay for the cost of running the school. The students have jobs in the community, one day a week, that covers their tuition. As I understand it, they have classroom work four days a week and they work the fifth. These students and their families do not have the economic means to pay tuition on their own. The kicker is that the work part makes their classroom work meaningful. “I need to learn how to write better because that’s what it takes at work.” (And that lack of understanding of why studying is meaningful is one of the biggest problems in public education, in my opinion, as a former school board member.) So you can paint their school as exploiting the students or you can paint it as giving them a meaningful education that they couldn’t otherwise obtain.

  18. Any funding mechanism, within reason and morality, that keeps Catholic schools from becoming accessible only to the wealthy, or dependent entirely or almost entirely on wealthy people to keep them running, is OK by me. Charging a small or sliding amount of tuition to insure that families have “skin in the game” is fine, but again, the idea should always be to insure that Catholic education is accessible to all income levels.

    The Catholic high school you mention that has students work to earn their tuition one day a week — that sounds like a great idea to me, because it enables the students to gain real life job experience. I wouldn’t consider it “exploiting” them at all, unless the jobs in question were exceptionally dangerous or exhausting.

    Should parishioners who don’t have children be responsible for supporting a parish or diocesan school? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Is the school an integral part of the Church’s mission to which ALL Catholics have some obligation to contribute (in line with the Fifth Precept of the Church)? Or, is it a purely voluntary/optional service which only those who participate in it are obligated to support, like a sodality or men’s/women’s club?

    When does fundraising become a diversion for the school’s main mission? I would say the line is crossed if the school comes under pressure to compromise or downplay Catholic teachings or other practices (e.g. dress codes, rules against teachers being married or cohabiting outside the Church), or to look the other way at obviously immoral or egregious practices of a major donor, in order to avoid losing the funds upon which it is dependent for its survival.

    I really appreciate everyone’s thoughts on this matter, and hopefully it will get everyone thinking about how best to support Catholic education. I didn’t mean to be excessively hard on Catholic schools but simply to point out a potential stumbling block to their mission.

  19. Eric called my attention to this entry last week, shortly after it had been posted, and in the chaos that was last week as one of my best friends got married, I left this open on my computer all week, not getting to it until this evening. I know the discussion has died down days ago, but if others are still interested in continuing the discussion, I find the Wichita approach very interesting. In response to the statement that what is free is not valued as much, I would like to call the attention back to the priest whose parents converted for the free education–their son had a vocation! That priest valued what he received so much that he ended up giving his life to God to continue to serve the same cause!

    I live in Houston, which is a large city with a number of immigrants (many of whom are Catholic), as well as many other “higher end” Catholics. It is interested that some parishes tend to serve either one end of the spectrum or another, based on location or other factors, but there are also parishes that are more “mixed”. I can’t speak for all parishes, but of these latter, I have seen a dichotomy within the parishes, where some kids can afford to go to the parochial school and others, no matter how devout of a home they come from, simply cannot afford it. They are then put through the public school system supplemented by a sub-standard Sunday catechesis, and we wonder why we have so many teens having pre-marital sex and a breakdown in families, especially in this lower-end demographic.

    It is because we have not taken it on as our responsibility as the Church to provide for the needs of our young people, all of them! One of the saddest things that has happened in the past half a century or so, at least in my opinion (which I believe can also contain an objective moral point), is the loss of the importance of the parochial school. I have been reading the history of a Franciscan religious order, which simultaneously tells the story of the development of Catholic schools in America. They were founded to further instill morals and an understanding of the Church teachings in all young people-immigrants, orphans, the poor, and yes, non-Catholics.

    Of course, the schools were easier to fund when they were run mostly by nuns. We didn’t have to pay competitive wages to lay men and women who have to take care of their families, and since we do rely on these people, we cannot cease to pay them now. But we can’t lose the mission to educate just because someone can’t afford the price tag of a solid Catholic education.

    In Wichita, I am sure that for this to function, many parents are aware of the cost of their child’s education, even if they aren’t the ones paying it in full. And if this is indeed working successfully, I am sure that there are parents who can afford it that write rather large checks as part of the lifestyle of stewardship. But to answer the question above, I do think that it is also appropriate that others who do not currently have children in the parochial school (or may never have children in it) to support it in some way or another. It is a vital ministry that ensures the future of the Church as it provides a place of the seeds of vocations to be nourished.

    I am curious if anyone knows more about other dioceses that are looking into this Wichita method and any studies being done, especially concerning the more urban areas.

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