Rather than writing for a general young adult or college-aged audience, I would like to turn my attention this month to high school students who are in the process of selecting a college to attend. Choices in higher education can be crucial, not only for intellectual formation, but also for spiritual development. The presence of a strong faith community should be a consideration for all serious Catholics as they examine possible college options.

The number of young adults who lose their faith in college is staggering. Less than 20% of Catholic college students in America attend Sunday Mass. A large factor in this problem is the change in environment that comes with the transition to college. If you have been Catholic all your life, you may not realize the value of a supportive community of faith. You may spend much of your time around family, friends at school, youth group members and other people who share your values and beliefs. Such people help you to live morally and grow spiritually. It is easy to take this kind of community for granted when it has been readily available your whole life.

College, however, is an entirely new world. College campuses are not known for promoting virtue or morality. Religious beliefs are attacked as being old-fashioned and close-minded. There is no shortage of immorality in a college environment – everything from cheating and plagiarism to sex and pornography to drug and alcohol abuse. With temptations running rampant around every corner, it can be very difficult to stand strong and remain committed. Finding other people who are dedicated to living a faith-filled life can make a huge difference.

You may think that there is no problem with having friends who do not share your beliefs. While it is not essential that your ideals are exactly identical with every single person you spend time around, it really is important to have a core network of like-minded people who can support you in difficult times. People who do not share your morals may be fun to hang out with, but they can also provide temptation and peer pressure that can be hard to resist. In addition, they will not be able to support you in beliefs that they themselves do not hold. Even if they respect your views, they do not agree with them, and so they cannot support you in your faith and help it to grow.

Where will you be four years from now? Will you have fallen away from your faith? Or will you have grown in your faith, allowing it to penetrate and enrich your life in entirely new ways? The answer can be greatly determined by whether you place yourself in a faith-filled community during your college years.

How can you find this vital community of faith? One way is by attending a Catholic college. While the people there are certainly not going to be perfect, it will be easier to find people who are committed to living their faith. Many Catholic universities have strong reputations and well-respected academic programs. In addition, they offer students the opportunity to maintain and even grow in their faith life. And while tuition at Catholic schools can be pricey, don’t give up on them simply because of their price tag. Scholarships, grants, loans and work study opportunities are all available to help students pay for college expenses. Catholic universities are certainly worth considering. They allow not only for intellectual formation, but also for spiritual development, resulting in a fuller growth of the whole person.

A note on Catholic colleges – any school can call itself “Catholic.” Unfortunately, some schools use this label, but do not adhere to it in their behavior. It is all too easy for an unknowing student to end up at a school that teaches and practices things contrary to the Catholic faith. The Cardinal Newman Society publishes a guide to finding Catholic colleges that truly live up to their name (the guide can be accessed at www.thenewmanguide.com). It may take some additional time and research to ensure that you are finding something authentic, but it is well worth the effort to attend a Catholic college that will nourish and enrich your faith life.

Sometimes, however, for academic, financial or other reasons, the best college fit is a secular college. If this is the case, you should look at Catholic campus ministry opportunities at the schools you are considering. Some colleges have a strong Newman Center or FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) program, allowing students who are serious about their faith to come together. Such opportunities will allow you to find other like-minded people. These are people with whom you can connect on multiple levels - whether you are going to Mass and bible study, spending a weekend camping in the woods or having a barbecue while watching the football game. To put it simply, you can find friends who want to have fun, but who will also support you spiritually and morally. And that will be incredibly important as you make the transition into the next stage of your life.