Making Catholic Higher Education Affordable

Interview with Father Joseph Fessio

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By Traci Osuna

SAN FRANCISCO, California, JULY 16, 2010 ( With the cost of higher education steadily rising, many students wishing to pursue a Catholic-based liberal arts education fear that they will not be able to afford to attend the school of their choice.

Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press who once studied under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is working alongside Patrick Carmack, president of Angelicum Academy, to help those students make that dream a reality by bringing affordable online Catholic college credits available to today’s students.

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Fessio explains the reasons behind the online offerings, and the advantages of

ZENIT: What prompted you to join forces with the Angelicum Academy? What is the role of Ignatius Press?

Father Fessio: Pat Carmack has been running an on-line Great Books program for Catholic students for over 10 years, Angelicum Academy. I knew Pat from years back and he’s the one that approached me with the idea of a partnership with Ignatius Press, with Ignatius Press assisting in the promotion of the program and the development of additional on line courses.

The program was very successful in terms of the students that were in it and the results they were achieving; but it wasn’t very well known. [Pat] knew that Ignatius Press had marketing abilities and was interested in education, so he contacted me. We formed a partnership in which we helped to make the program better known and, in addition, we’re going to work directly with them in expanding and approving the program.

We’re helping to make the Catholic community more aware of it so they will understand the value that it has and be interested in using [the program].

ZENIT: Pope Benedict was quoted as saying, «I exhort you to walk the roads of the digital continent animated by the courage of the Holy Spirit.» How do you feel that this program is fulfilling this request?

Father Fessio: One of the most important things that the Catholic Church provides is education. We’re all born ignorant and we’re all born intellectually poor, in that sense. One of the great works of the Church is to form people, both in their faith and their knowledge of God and the world. Education really is a substantial mission of the Church.

Higher education is becoming more and more expensive. High school education is as well; especially when you have generous Catholic parents with large families in which the mother is a fulltime homemaker. It’s often hard for them to receive a Catholic education in the traditional way because it’s too expensive. We think that offering an on-line form of education, at least as a complement or a supplement to more traditional education, is a way of fulfilling what the Pope is asking us to do.

ZENIT: Who would benefit most from this program?

Father Fessio: It’s open to anyone who is 14 years of age or older. It’s primarily aimed at high school students who want to get college credit for some of their high school courses, so that when they enter college, a year or two ahead, they’ve saved themselves the $40,000 or $50,000 a year that it could cost. But college students could take it, too, and get college credit. There are even [older] people who take it for enrichment.

ZENIT: How can people find out if the classes they are taking with your program will transfer to the college of their choice?

Father Fessio: We have what are called «Articulation Agreements» with various institutions. We have one with Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. They will accept at least 24 of the 48 approved credits for college transfer.

There’s an organization called ACE, American Council of Education. This organization reviews programs and acknowledges the college-level programs that meet their standards. If a course has been recognized by ACE as being a college level course, then any university may accept it, just like they may accept advanced placement credit from high school courses. But they’re not required to accept it.

We have a growing number of institutions that have said in a contractual letter that they agree to accept the credits of the students. Right now, it’s certain that students who took this course have their high school requirements fulfilled for liberal arts, and could get 24 units minimum accept by Benedictine College. There are other universities that are in discussion with us to offer that same kind of articulation agreement.

ZENIT: How does the program spread Catholic teachings into the liberal arts curriculum?

Father Fessio: It’s a Great Books program, so it includes many books that are not specifically Catholic, like Homer’s «Iliad,» «Odyssey,» Virgil’s «Aeneid,» Marx’s «Das Kapital,» and Kant’s philosophy.

But it also includes the great Catholic classics: The Bible, of course, St. Augustine, some of the Father’s of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas, more contemporary theologians who are all part of the Great Books series. There is, as well, Catholic literature, such as Dante’s «Divine Comedy,» and a lot of Shakespeare. There’s some question about whether Shakespeare was Catholic or not, I think he was. But whether he was or not, in fact, a Catholic, his worldview and the way he expresses things are Catholic.

The content [of the program] is often Catholic, but the professors, themselves, are Catholic, and at least one [professor] in each seminar has a PhD and they will interpret things from a Catholic perspective.

ZENIT: How would taking a course on-line differ from taking a course in the classroom?

Father Fessio: There are a number of differences. One difference is that it’s a lot less expensive. It’s not the same thing as being in class, obviously, face-to-face with the teacher. We don’t think on-line education should entirely replace more personal education. However, the courses we now offer are called «synchronous courses,» as opposed to «asynchronous courses,» meaning that you cannot just go on-line on your own and work through the course with text and take the exams. You are actually participating in a seminar with other students at the same time.

You log in, you’re listening to the professor and other students, and you’re able to ask questions and get responses. But you are not in a real classroom; it’s a virtual classroom. That makes it a little more like a classroom experience.

What we hope to do is to have one or two weekends a semester, and a couple of weeks in the summer, when the students and faculty can meet for personal interchange.

Benedictine has a campus in Florence, Italy, and we think that that would be a wonderful opportunity to meet for a couple of weeks over there. And because students are economizing so much on the cost of education itself, they can afford to do some of these enrichment things.

In the larger scheme of things, online education is growing and becoming more dominant. Traditional education is becoming more expensive. Continually, over the last 20-30 years, the costs have risen more than the cost of living.

When I went to college, I could work in the summer and pay my whole tuition, and room and board. Now, what student can have a summer job that earns $60,000? It’s just not reasonable.

The question is not whether people like it or don’t like it. The question is whether or not the Catholic Church is going to have a presence there. And we’re committed to making sure the Catholic Church is represented in the online community.

ZENIT: Would these credits transfer over to a public or state college?

Father Fessio: That would depend on the state college. We are working on a project where we will have accreditation by an accreditation agency. Once we have that, then of course, the state colleges should accept those.

We will be in conversation certain selected institutions to see whether we can get articulation agreements with them as well.

Of course, the advantage of the high s
chool program we have is the college credit is kind of a bonus. You have to go to high school any way, so if you go to a state college that doesn’t accept it, you’re no worse off than if you had gone somewhere else; but if they accept a year’s worth of credit for college, then it’s a plus.

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