Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.

12.31.2013

Francis Effect 2.0

  

As the year has drawn to a close, CARA has received a lot of inquiries about the measurement of a "Francis Effect." Are Catholics who left the faith coming back? Are more Catholics going to Mass and seeking out sacraments more often? His approval numbers are certainly high (1, 2) but what else is happening?

It’s really too early to know anything more than anecdotes. We have noted survey-based estimates of Mass attendance are steady (Pew as well). However, surveys have margins of error and the Catholic population is large (i.e., 3% of the U.S. adult Catholic population is approximately 1.7 million people). I think a Francis Effect is real, but isn't large enough to "see" beyond a survey’s margin of error (…yet?). It may be more on the scale of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Catholics coming back or attending Mass more often rather than the millions that would be needed to see something in surveys beyond the normal fluctuations we see poll to poll.

We will know more eventually. In the summer of 2015 sacramental practice data for 2013 will be released. We will be able to make comparisons of this year to 2012 and previous years. With these data there is no margin of error to worry about as these are Church records of baptisms, marriages, and other sacraments and rites. CARA is currently collecting data on Mass attendance and sacraments from a large random sample of U.S. parishes. One of the interesting things that really stands out to me do far is that in 2012, before Pope Francis took office, the reported number of individuals seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation (i.e., confession) was 30% higher than it was in 2008 (...an increase well beyond Catholic population growth). Something seems to have been stirring in the U.S. Catholic Church even before 2013 began. Has Pope Francis pushed these numbers even higher this year? We'll know more next year...

Yet there also appears to be a "Francis Effect 2.0" that is clearly visible right now. Pope Francis is not just widely likeable (…his final Mass in Rio for World Youth Day ranks as one of the largest gatherings of people in history), he also appears to be playing an important agenda setting role.

Looking back over our posts this year two stand out. These were statistical content analyses related to the economy, poverty, and unemployment. The first highlighted that news stories about these topics were either absent or relatively uncovered in the “media or record” in the U.S. despite being among the top concern of many Americans. The second revealed that President Obama has largely avoided rhetoric including mentions of the poor or poverty, in comparison to other modern presidents (...the President does not deserve to be singled out in comparison to other Democrats and Republicans currently in office who have been just as guilty of these omissions). The President has even promised that "the middle class will always be my number one focus. Period." 

By comparison, Pope Francis has put issues of poverty, wages, unemployment, hunger, and homelessness front and center like few other world leaders have in recent memory (...note however, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI spoke of these as well. See the citations in Evangelii Gaudium). Is it purely coincidence that The New York Times has suddenly (re-)discovered homelessness as a centerpiece of coverage? Or that President Obama is beginning to talk more about poverty and citing Pope Francis in doing so? Perhaps, but the economy has certainly been far worse in recent years than it is now. Why the 180 degree turn at the end of 2013? Has concern over climate change waned? Are we all out of "cliffs" and "sequesters"? Has the national "Duck Dynasty Crisis" been resolved? Why and how has poverty become an issue for politicians and the media again now?

Part of the answer, I believe, is in Pope Francis raising the issue of poverty to new heights. He’s put it back at the top of the agenda when few leaders had the courage to do so (1, 2, 3). This is likely important to the many Catholics who put "helping those in need" at or near the top of things that are important to their sense of being Catholic in CARA's national polls (and their #2 Church giving priority). While the Francis Effect 1.0 will still be a focus of our research in 2014, I think evidence of the Francis Effect 2.0 is already quite clear for anyone to see. I hope 2014 is a better year for many in need because of it.

12.02.2013

Mexican Ancestry More Common Than Any Other among U.S. Catholics Under 65


In a September CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) we asked a national random sample of working-age self-identified Catholics (ages 16 to 64) "What is your ancestry or ethnic origin?" as an open-ended question (i.e., Census method). We identified more than 80 specific code-able ancestries from the 1,365 respondents (margin of sampling error ±2.7 percentage points). The most common response was Mexican (19.0%) followed by Irish (16.6%), German (15.7%), Italian (12.5%), and Polish (7.6%). The figure below compares this Catholic sample to the overall U.S. population.


In 2010, we posted a time-series analysis of ancestry for U.S. Catholics using the General Social Survey (GSS) entitled "On What Wave Did Your Ancestors Ride?" In the larger, more recent, and younger sample noted above, Mexican ancestry is now clearly even more common among U.S. adult Catholics under 65. This is not unexpected given recent immigration patterns and greater racial and ethnic diversity among Catholic Millennials (born 1982 or later). By comparison, in the 1970s, 18% of U.S. adult Catholics self-identified their ancestry as Italian (...now ranking 4th, with more Italian-Americans no longer self-identifing as Catholic) followed by 16% Irish, 13% German, 9% Polish, and 7% Mexican.

Overall, 26% of all respondents indicated ancestry with one or more Latin American countries. Yet, some 37% of respondents self-identifies their race or ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino. About one in four Hispanic or Latino Catholics did not indicate ancestry to any specific Latin American country (27%). Fifty-two percent of Hispanic or Latino Catholics say they are of Mexican ancestry.

More than a quarter of non-Hispanic white Catholics surveyed say they are of Irish ancestry (27%). Three percent of black or African American Catholics indicate Irish ancestry as do 2% of Hispanic or Latino Catholics. Yet, as shown in the figure below, self-identification with a European ancestry is more broadly falling across Catholic generations. Feeling a personal connection to waves of Catholic immigration from Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries appears to be fading a bit into the history books (...note this is most likely occurring through generational replacement rather than anyone changing their ancestral self-identities).


On average, respondents identified with 1.2 ancestry groups. This does not vary across generations. Thus, younger Catholics are not losing a sense of ancestry or ethnic origin in general. Across all generations, fewer than one in five don't have any ancestral identities. Majorities note just one ancestry group. More than a quarter of Millennials (26%) note two or more ancestry groups.


In other recent research, CARA has identified 946 Catholic parishes in the United States (5.4%) who indicate that they currently serve a specific European-origin community including 248 Polish parishes, 236 German parishes, 199 Italian parishes, and 108 Irish parishes. By comparison there are 4,544 parishes (26.1%) who indicate that they serve Hispanic, Latino, and/or Spanish speaking communities. For more information about this topic and other related data see our recently released study, "Cultural Diversity in the Catholic Church in the United States."

Ship mast image above courtesy of eschipul.

11.26.2013

Don't Call, Will Tell


Did you get your call from Pope Francis yet? As you might have heard he is polling the world's Catholics about aspects of family life. The phone tree is quite a bit smaller than most in the media seem to be aware of. As is often the case ahead of a synod, Pope Francis has asked the Church's bishops to provide information about their diocese. Some bishops have attempted to survey lay Catholics to provide input for their responses (...in one case using SurveyMonkey, which in my opinion is like trying to make Thanksgiving dinner in an Easy Bake Oven. There are reasons survey researchers get graduate degrees. Sampling, weighting, question wording all really, really matter...). However, there is no systematic nor scientific effort in this regard and the questions from the Vatican are not really for the public in a personal and individual sense (...referencing Church documents and asking for information about the Catholic population's general awareness of and/or belief in aspects of the faith).

At the same time it is likely that many bishops will turn to polling data to answer some of the Vatican's questions such as cohabitation percentages, divorced and remarried percentages, and attitudes about same-sex civil unions and marriage. Many may look to existing national telephone polls from Gallup, Pew, or PRRI on these issues. However, there is emerging evidence that these may not provide the most precise view of public opinion and behavior for some matters.

A recent post examined the difference between self-reported Mass attendance in surveys when an interviewer is asking the question and when a respondent is filling out a survey on screen (i.e., self-administered). For certain questions, survey researchers know people are more honest when they are not interacting with a human being—things like giving to charity, voting, use of drugs, or marital infidelity. The presence of an interviewer (even just on the phone) increases the likelihood that respondents will cave to "social desirability" pressures and answer in a way that that they feel is socially acceptable, normal, and/or good. Pew recently acknowledged this creates a distortion in their Church attendance estimates (CARA's survey methods prevent much of this).

Does this matter for any of the information the Vatican is looking for? In recent years there has been a lot of attention given to changing attitudes about same-sex relationships in the United States. Since the early 1990s, American attitudes about many lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) issues have shifted dramatically. So much so, that we know this is just not happening through generational replacement (i.e., older Americans passing away and being replaced by younger Americans with different attitudes). Some are changing their minds. Yet, research has also indicated that there may be a "Bradley effect" occurring with polling on same-sex issues (1, 2, 3). The Bradley effect is named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley who was leading in the polls in the 1982 California Governor’s race but then lost the election. Some interpreted this result as being created by white voters who were unwilling to vote for a black candidate but who said they would do so when surveyed by interviewers. Some state referenda regarding same-sex marriage have done better in surveys than at the ballot box leading to the hypothesis that some people are saying they would vote for same-sex marriage but then doing the opposite on Election Day.

What is in a person's mind is not always reflected well in their answers to a survey interview. The 2012 American National Election Study (ANES) provides a rather unique opportunity to examine the possibility that there is a mismatch for some between mind and mouth when being surveyed about LGB issues. The ANES includes 2,056 face-to-face interviews and 3,860 surveys completed by respondents onscreen (online or through televisions via Knowledge Networks national panel). With a total of 5,916 interviews with voting eligible Americans we have relatively low margins of error to work with—even for sub-groups. In the figures below we show results of an analysis of the ANES data by religious affiliation. This includes three groups: Catholics, all other Christians, and those without a religious affiliation. There are not sufficient respondents with other non-Christian religious affiliations to examine this group separately.

Of course one other sub-group is key. How did the respondent take the survey? Were they interviewed or did they fill it out alone onscreen? The table below shows differences between these two samples, after the survey's weighting is applied. Those who took the self-administered survey are less likely than than those interviewed face-to-face to be independents (...this may be a related to the mode, with some feeling more socially comfortable saying they are independent in these deeply partisan times when speaking to an interviewer). Either way this does not lead to significant a partisan “imbalance” as the effect is similar for Democrats (+3 percentage points) and Republicans (+5 percentage points). The self-administered respondents are more likely to be moderates than ideologues in either direction—although again the difference is small. In sum, the self-administered sample does not appear to lean more “left” or “right” than the face-to-face sample. This is also reflected in the self-reports of their 2012 vote. There is no difference in religiosity between the samples. The face-to-face respondents are slightly more likely than the self-administered respondents to be Tea Party supporters (22% compared to 17%).


The ANES data allow one to test for a potential "Bradley-like effect" by comparing the responses of these two samples. The figure below shows only very small differences between these two groups of respondents. When asked about same-sex marriage, 44% of Catholics said they supported gay and lesbian couples being allowed to legally marry when interviewed face-to-face. Slightly fewer, 38% of Catholics, responded as such in self-administered surveys. Small differences are also apparent among other respondents. However, all of these results are within margins of error. Note the other two response options are support for civil unions or no legal recognition. Majorities of all three religious groups, regardless of mode, support legal marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples.


The next question was split-sample. One version of the question refers to "gays and lesbians" and the other to "homosexuals." Both focus on the same issue of legislation to prevent job discrimination. The differences here for Catholics and other Christians are beyond margin of error. Both groups are less likely to "strongly favor" laws to protect against job discrimination based on sexual orientation when an interviewer is not present. This result is consistent across both sub-samples/versions of the question. Note that when interviewed by a person, majorities of Catholics and other Christians appear to strongly support this legislation. However, half or fewer strongly support this when answering the question onscreen alone. Also note when "homosexuals" is used in the question wording a difference among the unaffiliated becomes evident as well.


A similar split-sample questions series explores attitudes about military service (i.e., the figure shows those "strongly favoring" the ability to serve). Here, opinion is more positive but also varies slightly by survey mode for Catholics when "gays and lesbians" is used. When this is replaced by "homosexuals" differences are apparent among all three sub-groups.


Turning to adoption, a slight difference among Catholics by mode is again apparent. Here the measurement is dichotomous—favoring legal adoption or not. The figure shows percentage saying "yes" they favor legal adoption.


Finally, the ANES employs a number of "feeling thermometers." These gauge how "warmly" or "coolly" people feel toward individuals, groups, and institutions. A score of 100 is very favorable (warm) and 0 is very unfavorable (cold). A score of 50 indicates a lack of any particular feeling (neither warm nor cold). In 2012, the ANES asked about respondents' feelings toward "gay men and lesbians." As shown in the figure below, the average thermometer scores are slightly lower when no interviewer is present. However, the differences are so small they are within margin of error.


Potential social desirability pressures are more evident in the percentages of respondents who gave scores below 50 (unfavorable, cold). More respondents in self-administered surveys than in face-to-face interviews were likely to do this across all three religious sub-groups.


The ANES also asks respondents about the number of LGB individuals among their families, neighbors, co-workers, and close friends. Significantly fewer in the self-administered surveys indicate they have a LGB family member, co-worker, neighbor, or close friend. Perhaps this explains all that has been shown above? I don’t think so. Instead, I think this is again social desirability pressures. In a face-to-face interview, saying you don’t know anyone in the LGB community could appear to some as an indicator of discrimination and avoidance.


Finally, the ANES asks respondents to define their own sexual orientation. Those with no religious affiliation, regardless of survey mode, are most likely to self-identify as homosexual, gay, or bisexual (LGB Americans are more likely than others to leave their childhood religion for no affiliation). No differences by mode are apparent.


Across all questions the differences are generally small. Any social desirability effect, if real, is weak. However, the differences are consistent across questions and consistent with existing research. Similar differences are not apparent between the samples for other questions about abortion, climate change, or affirmative action. More research is needed before making any substantial conclusions on this topic (e.g., a replication of the ANES 2012 model in future election years). The ANES also uses face-to-face interviews and the social distance of telephone interviews may reduce social desirability pressures a bit. As a single-snap shot, without replication, other explanations for the differences noted above are certainly possible.

I know some might read this post and then be tempted to run with the line, "CARA says the polls are wrong, Catholics don't support/oppose _____________." That would be a mistake. That is not what this post is saying. Instead this post shows evidence that polls requiring a human interviewer may slightly overestimate support for LGB issues among Americans—Catholic or not. That does not mean these polls are "wrong." The changes in American attitudes in the last two decades are real and in a broader context the potential social desirability effects examined here confirm this. The reason over-reports may be occurring is because respondents believe that the broader culture they live in has shifted and they feel pressure to conform to this in a social context—even when their opinions may differ. This is just as much an indicator of change as the broader trends in the polling data. At the same time, if one wants to know as exactly as possible what a group’s opinion is on same-sex issues, CARA would recommend getting rid of the interviewer.

Phone image courtesy of MoShotz.

11.15.2013

"Being Catholic" Won't Win Much of the Catholic Vote Anymore


Next week it will be 50 years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated. More than seven in ten Catholics alive today have no living memory of the first Catholic president. Will they ever see the "second" Catholic president in their lifetimes? Perhaps. There is no shortage of Catholics likely to run in 2016 from both parties. Will the fact that candidates are Catholic make those voters who share his or her faith more likely to vote for them? Probably not.

After the 2004 election Sr. Mary Bendya, Paul Perl, and I published an article entitled "Camelot Only Comes but Once" that outlined this reality. Now, nearly a decade later, I am still sure this is the case. A few weeks ago CARA conducted a national CARA Catholic Poll (CCP) asking respondents. "Does the fact that a presidential candidate is Catholic matter to you... 1) Not at all, 2) A little, 3) Somewhat, 4) Very much?" The sample included only working-age, self-identified Catholics (i.e., those ages 16 to 64). Thus, no one in the sample could have ever voted for JFK and the oldest respondents would have been 14 when he was assassinated.

Fifty-nine percent of Catholics surveyed said the fact that a candidate is Catholic does not matter "at all" to them. Nineteen percent said it matters "a little" and 16% said it matters "somewhat" to them. Only 6% said it matters "very much" (...note that this is consistent with 2012 results with many Catholic Republicans voting for Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, over other Catholic candidates in their party).


It is the case that the significance of a candidate's religion rises a bit among monthly and weekly Mass attenders. Majorities of these groups said a candidate's Catholicism is at least "a little" important to them. Yet, from other CCPs we know that 51% of all adult self-identified Catholics (ages 18 and older) attend Mass only a few times a year or less often. A Catholic candidate seeking an edge in the Catholic vote will likely have to look to people in the pews and will find a smaller pool of potential voters there.


There is one other demographic where a candidate's Catholicism "matters" and it's not one you would would likely first expect. A majority of Catholics ages 18 to 29 said the fact that a candidate is Catholic is at least "a little" important to them (25% "a little," 22% "somewhat," and 4% "very much"). It is also the case that Catholics in the Northeast were least likely to say a candidate's Catholicism matters to them (29% at least "a little").

Fifty years ago things were very different for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. JFK was a year away from competing for a second term. He was polling strong. October and November 1963 Gallup and Harris polls of the overall electorate had him leading George Romney (53% to 35%), Barry Goldwater (57% to 34%), Nelson Rockefeller (57% to 29%), and Richard Nixon (57% to 35%). JFK's presidential approval numbers were simply extraordinary. As shown below, he is the only modern president that never had an approval rating under 50% (his lowest was 56%). He also has the record for the best average approval rating at 70% positive.


Although many Catholic candidates may have had dreams of "reclaiming Camelot," most have never even made it to the nomination. Averaging the election outcome polls for Gallup (1952-2012), the American National Election Study (1952-2012), and media exit polls (1976-2012), we can see the difference between John F. Kennedy's success among Catholics and John Kerry's more meager totals (according to Gallup and ANES estimates Kerry won the Catholic vote. Exit polls give the lead to President Bush). 


It is amazing how Kennedy was able to capture 80% of the Catholic vote in 1960. He likely would have matched this again given his popularity and how well his former Vice President Lyndon Johnson did among Catholics in 1964. Since this time, Catholics have always been "in-play." Even in 2012, where President Obama won a majority nationally, he lost the Catholic vote to Gov. Romney in many key "blue" and swing states. This competitiveness will undoubtedly have reporters and pundits looking to the Catholic vote again in 2016. Catholic candidates will count on gaining the slightest of edges here. Yet, it appears very unlikely that a "Camelot" candidacy will ever "reappear."

There are moments in history that define generations—that become the most striking, shocking, or important thing they remember from their youth. For my parents' generation this was JFK's assassination (...for my generation it was likely the Challenger explosion and for young adults today it is undoubtedly 9/11). The polls in the wake of JFK's assassination record the sadness and disappointment of a nation. Fifty-five percent of Americans say they "found it more difficult to carry on" (NORC, Nov.-Dec. 1963). In the same survey, 49% said that hearing the news felt like learning of the death of a spouse, parent, child, or other relative. Fifty-two percent of Americans attended a religious service in the wake of the assassination. Thirty-eight percent of Americans had trouble sleeping after the funeral and the same percentage reported crying after the funeral. In the immediate aftermath only 24% thought the assassination was "the work of one man." A recent Associated Press poll (Apr. 2013) estimated that only 39% of Americans are "very" or "extremely" sure JFK was assassinated by one man today. For many, the questions and sadness remain even 50 years on...


JFK image courtesy of Mike Jahn.

11.01.2013

Steady Changes


CARA had its annual board meeting and reception this week. We awarded Neil A. Parent with the Cardinal Cushing Medal for the Advancement of Church Research (CARA history...next year is our 50th anniversary!) Neil served as the director of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project, a joint endeavor of five Catholic organizations funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc. Prior to this, Neil served as Executive Director for 17 years at the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership, as association of religious educators from dioceses, parishes, universities, and publishing houses. Neil also served for twelve years as the Representative for Adult Education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the author of A Concise Guide to Adult Faith Formation (Ave Maria Press, 2009). His articles have appeared in a variety of publications as well as in the U.S. Catholic New Service’s syndicated series, Faith Alive.

I had the pleasure to work with Neil on the Emerging Models project. Before he received the CARA award I gave an overview presentation about parish life called "Steady Changes" (slides can be seen below or downloaded). Without Neil's support as well as from all the Emerging Models partners we would not know as much about many important changes occurring in U.S. parishes. The presentation below includes some of this work as well as other aspects of CARA research that speak to these topics:

10.31.2013

"Headless" Catholics, A Trick and My Treat


Did you attend Mass this October? If you did not attend this month you don't need a costume tonight. You are already a "headless" Catholic. Most dioceses do October Mass attendance headcounts. This allows them to track the number of Catholics year over year going to Mass. Some dioceses publicize these. Others do not. While CARA and others track Mass attendance in national surveys, these are often done at different times of year. We know that nationally, Mass attendance has been steady for about a dozen years. But how does Catholic Mass attendance vary week to week?

Since we know so much about Mass attendance in October let's start there. Not only does CARA have its national surveys of adult Catholics, we also have in-pew surveys of Catholics, and surveys of pastors where we ask for their parish's October headcount numbers. These can set the October baseline of our week to week Mass attendance estimates. But then how do we know how many attend in February or June? There are a few other pieces of information we can use. CARA has asked about Mass attendance on Ash Wednesday and we've also asked about Christmas and Easter. Our national surveys estimate that about 45% percent of Catholics attend on Ash Wednesday and about 68% attend at Christmas.

To get estimates for other weeks we are taking a page from new methods used by hedge funds and the Centers for Disease Control for prediction and tracking. We've looked to Google Trends (...after first noticing the utility of this tool in 2009). You can learn a lot from what people are searching for on the most popular web site in the world. We arguably have never had so much data for what is on people's minds. Google Trends has been shown (1, 2, 3) to be predictive of car sales, opening movie box offices, unemployment claims, travel trends, the geography of Lyme disease, and so much more. Can it predict Mass attendance? Yes.

We tried several different combinations of Mass related search terms. In the end a simple two word combination worked best: "Mass times." There is a core of the self-identified Catholic population that attends Mass every week. What makes Mass attendance rise above this core are those attending monthly or only on days of obligation. When these individuals choose to attend they are often checking in with Google to see what time (and perhaps where) they need to go. What happens when we use Google Trends search volume data for "Mass times" to put our known October data points in motion? Something extraordinary. It "predicts" Ash Wednesday and Christmas attendance that is nearly identical to our survey-based estimates (...Easter is a bit lower than we expected. This may be related to Easter coinciding with Spring Break and vacations away from local parishes for some Catholics). It also shows the upticks we expect on other days of obligation. This is shown in the figure below (click to see full-size).


We use multiple years of U.S. Google Trends data to generate this figure. In doing so, we have made Easter an "immovable feast" for demonstration purposes (averaging Ash Wednesday and Easter attendance into single weeks). One can see that the lowest levels of Mass attendance are typically during February before Ash Wednesday and in November before Advent. Outside of Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday the next highest level of of attendance is estimated to be in August for the Assumption of Mary. On average, across all weeks Mass attendance is estimated to be 26%. In October, we estimate that about 80% of self-identified Catholics are "headless." 

"A Trick"


Now for something completely different... Last week I gave a brief introductory presentation before a Georgetown viewing of The Exorcist. I am also teaching a class this semester on Catholicism on film and we spend a week looking at The Exorcist and other Catholic "horror" related films (...even though William Peter Blatty has said his intention was not to scare audiences).

What is most interesting to me is the historical connection between Georgetown and the film. Blatty, a Georgetown alum, became interested in the real story behind the film as a student. He like many others read this piece in The Washington Post by Bill Brinkley about the case in 1949 (documenting "one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history"). He ended up doing a thesis on the case and acquired a copy of the Jesuit case study for the boy named Ronald (this is often referred to as a "diary"). The film, and the book on which it is based, have little resemblance to the case study. Some of this was likely intentional to protect Ronald's identity (in the movie the child is named Regan and in real life the pseudonyms Robbie and Roland were often used). But other aspects, including much of the most gruesome horror and nearly all of the Georgetown connection was invented.

Here is an example of a story in the Catholic press that mirrors the "real story" that many people have come to know. This example was written in 1998. A year later, Mark Opsasnick, a local author and journalist, would uncover a very different story and even track down the adult Ronald living in Maryland and speak to him by phone (the last known public record related to Ronald is a 2006 traffic ticket) as well as one of the priests involved. Opsasnick's work has been used as a model for community-based investigative journalism in some college courses. He used phone books, property records, school yearbooks, and interviews with people in the community to track down a treasure of unknown details about the case. Like Blatty, he also came across a copy of the Jesuit case study. You can as well if you look hard enough. The copy I found is consistent with other descriptions I've read of the document but I cannot attest to its authenticity.

If tonight is like many past Halloweens, some will gravitate to a lot on Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier, Maryland. This is thought by many to be the place of Ronald's childhood home. As Opsasnick has shown, no boy resided in this home and his actual residence in 1949 was in nearby Cottage City (pictured above). The house used in the film on Georgetown's Prospect Street was only used for its exteriors and its proximity to the famous stairs. You can also find a now well known picture of Ronald if you look hard enough. It's his senior photo from a famous D.C. Catholic high school (he was raised Lutheran but converted to Catholicism). The "real" story has a much happier ending than the film version. First, no Jesuits were killed or even injured (other than perhaps a punch in the nose). Second, Ronald went on to live a "normal" life, with a career and family (...not entirely normal as he has reportedly been contacted by a few fans of the film who have "connected the dots" from Opsasnick's research) .

What the film and the former version of the "real story" get wrong is the strong Georgetown connection. According to the Jesuit case study I am aware of, Ronald's mother asked Fr. Albert Hughes, a parish priest at St. James Catholic Church in Mt. Rainer for help. He suggested using blessed candles, holy water, and prayers. He sought permission from his archbishop to perform an exorcism (...in modern times, the Church has always viewed claims of possession with skepticism and required medical and psychological examinations). Ronald was admitted to Georgetown Hospital for evaluation. However, it was unlikely that Fr. Hughes had yet received any permission for exorcism (as noted below he would later receive this). There is no record of an initial exorcism at Georgetown in the case study (... thus, there is also no note of Fr. Hughes being stabbed in the arm with a bed spring at the hospital).

Ronald's family soon left to stay with relatives in St. Louis before anything else could happen in Georgetown. There, the boy came under the care of Jesuits at Saint Louis University. Permission was eventually given by the local archbishop to perform an exorcism. This did commence. At some point the family wished to return to Maryland. By this time permission had also been given locally for an exorcism. However, the Jesuit case study notes that the priests involved "tried several hospitals in Washington, but because of the nature of the case no one was willing to accept the burden." The family eventually returned to St. Louis and an Alexian Brothers Hospital and the exorcism was completed.

According to the case study, what the film and the real real story share is that the teenager played with a Ouija board and initially experienced "tantrum sleep" from which the boy could not easily be awoken. A variety of other strange phenomenon are reported in the case study but these were not directly witnessed by the priests (...however, the boy's family, his teacher and classmates, as well as Lutheran clergy did). During exorcism, Ronald is said to have exhibited "diabolical spitting" and "biting." There was "bed shaking" with "tantrum" where "strength beyond the natural power" of the teen was exhibited (in some cases it took three to five others to hold him down). Ronald used Latin, which he did not know, but it is noted that he may have been mimicking the priests. There was "violent shouting and fiendish laughter" including very foul and sexual language. There is one report of an object moving by the priests ("bottle from a dresser [moved] across the room"). Ronald said he had visions of a priest in the room being in Hell in the future. The case study reports "body markings" and "brandings." However, some possibility of these being produced by the teen is noted. There was no head spinning, levitation, or spider walking down stairs.

Hollywood frequently has to go over the top with history to make a film entertaining and compelling. However, if you read the journalism about the exorcism produced in the last decade it is just as fascinating in my opinion. For me, the most reassuring aspects of reading Opsasnick's research and the final notes of the case study is that Ronald went on to live a seemingly normal life. No matter what one's opinion is of this case, that seems to be the most important result.

I also find it weird that some Catholics seem to believe the film is sacrilegious. Blatty was and is a devout Catholic. Georgetown rarely gives permission for movies to be filmed on campus (e.g., St. Elmo's Fire was shot at University of Maryland). More so, the U.S. bishops are on record as not considering it "morally offensive." They note is is "strictly adult fare" and that it is "on shaky ground theologically" but Catholics are not in any way "banned" from seeing it... or digging a bit into history to see what really inspired the film.

To my surprise, reviewing survey data before my talk, I also found that belief in the Devil (and Hell) in the United States is actually on the rise. If this is occurring more specifically among Catholics as well this may foreshadow fewer headless Catholics in the future.

"My Treat"
I won't be needing any candy tonight. I already have the treat I need in the photo below. I grew up in Denver Colorado in the 1970s which afflicted me with Bronco super-fandom. The best man at my wedding in his toast noted he had seen me at my happiest twice; marrying my wife and in the minutes after Super Bowl XXXII. Imagine my surprise yesterday seeing this:



This is the wife of Broncos Def. Coordinator Jack Del Rio, Linda, giving Pope Francis a football signed by the Denver Broncos (...oddly enough one of my Georgetown students, doing an independent study on the Vatican and in my film class as well was present with this group, The Patrons of The Arts in the Vatican Museums). I know Pope Francis is a fan of Club Atl├ętico San Lorenzo de Almagro. American Football is not his game. But perhaps handing a ball off to Pope Francis for a moment could be a sign of more happiest moments to come (...we tried Tim Tebow and he only got us one miraculous playoff win, "The 3:16 game").

"Headless" image courtesy of Ben in CHI. Pope Francis image courtesy of Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

9.26.2013

Divorce (Still) Less Likely Among Catholics


There are few topics in the social sciences that create more confusion among the public than divorce. The conversation usually begins like this... "If half of all marriages fail how can your survey find that only 12% of Catholics are divorced?" The root of this problem is that there are so many ways divorce and "divorce rates" are measured, calculated, and discussed (...not to mention that the "half of all marriages" notion borders on urban legend status).

The U.S. National Vital Statistics System measures a crude rate. This is simply the total number of divorces in a year per 1,000 of the population. Using this measure one can conclude that divorce is becoming less common in the United States. In 2011, there were 877,000 new divorces or 3.6 per 1,000 of the U.S. population. In the 1980s this measure peaked above 5 per 1,000. The primary reason this number has declined is because fewer are marrying in the first place. The crude marriage rate in 2011 was 6.8 new marriages per 1,000 of the U.S. population. Just a dozen years ago this figure was above 8 per 1,000. In a longer view, it is important to remember that in the 1970s nearly three-quarters of the adult population was married. In 2012, only 52% of U.S. adults were married.

The easiest (and certainly not the best) way to measure "divorce odds" is to divide the crude divorce rate by the crude marriage rate (e.g., 3.6 / 6.8). Using this simple method one could estimate that "53% of U.S. marriages end in divorce" with the most recent data. However, this is quite unrealistic and sloppy as the number of marriages and divorces in any single year are for the most part unrelated (with the exception of those who divorce only a few months after marrying). To more accurately measure divorce odds one would need a longitudinal study involving a nationally representative panel of married couples followed over many decades. That takes time and money and many prefer the quick and the crude way of measuring divorce odds (...not to mention that a longitudinal study provides results that are likely to be dated by the time the project ends).

One other figure often used in the discussion of divorce is the percentage of Americans who have ever divorced. This is different from the percentage who are currently divorced as many who go through divorce remarry later in life. As shown in the figure below (using decade aggregated data from the General Social Survey 1972-78, 1980-89, 1990-98, 2000-08, 2010-12), the percentage of Americans ever experiencing divorce rose in the 1980s and 1990s but has remained more stable since then. Differences between religious affiliation groups are small. About one in five Catholic adults have experienced divorce in their lifetimes (this is consistent with CARA's recent research on the topic) and about one in ten currently describe their marital status as divorced in surveys (i.e., some remarry after divorce with or without annulment. More on this below...).


The problem with this measure is that again it does not account for changes in the number of Americans marrying. Without marriage you won't ever get divorced! The second figure below, using GSS data again, estimates the percentage of Americans who have ever married that experience a divorce. This is still just a series of snapshots and not the longitudinal panel one would prefer but it does provide the most accessible view of something close to "odds of divorce." It still does not provide us with "the percentage of marriages that end in divorce" as the unit analysis is the individual and not the marriage (e.g., someone could be widowed, marry again, divorce, and marry again...).


Currently, using the last two waves of the GSS for 2010 and 2012, this measure of divorce stands at 36% for the adult ever-married population. Adult Catholics stand out with only 28% of the ever-married having divorced at some point (...struggling most with "being faithful." A previous post examines religious affiliation and infidelity). By comparison, 42% of American adults without a religious affiliation (i.e., "Nones") who have married have divorced at some point. Notice the difference between the two preceding figures. Those with no religious affiliation are among the least likely to ever divorce in the overall adult population. Yet those with no affiliation are also among the least likely to marry in the first place and once one isolates those in this group who have married, the data take on a much more dismal outlook.

There are a few other religious wrinkles to examine. It takes two to marry and there is evidence that more Americans are marrying someone who does not share their faith. Does this matter? A 2010 survey conducted for Naomi Schaefer Riley's `Til Faith Do Us Part (Oxford University Press, 2013) estimates that 29% of married couples where both spouses are Catholic experience a divorce. The General Social Survey and CARA's Catholic Polls (CCP) indicate that about seven in ten married Catholics have a Catholic spouse (remaining steadily between 68% to 72% since the 1970s). This remains the case in the GSS even when one is measuring the faith of the spouse at age 16 (to control for possible conversions to a partner's faith during marriage). As we've shown in a previous post, the likelihood that a Catholic marries someone of their own faith in a Catholic parish is largely dependent on factors in their community.

As shown in the figure below, calculated from a national CARA survey on marriage conducted in 2007, Catholics who marry someone who has no religious affiliation or a Protestant affiliation are more likely than those marrying a Catholic or someone of another affiliation to experience divorce with this person. Note this CARA survey estimates that 32% of ever-married Catholics had experienced divorce compared to the more recent GSS estimate of 28%. This difference is within margins of error. Schaefer Riley's survey, with fewer Catholic respondents, estimates lower odds of divorce for Catholics married to someone without a religious affiliation (...CARA's survey uses scientific probability-based random sampling. Schaefer Riley's survey was completed with YouGov, which uses a self-selected opt-in internet panel).


In the CARA survey we also asked Catholics who had experienced divorce if they had ever sought an annulment. Only 15% indicated that they had. As shown in the figure below, requests for annulments have declined in the United States along with marriages in the Church. In the most recent year with available data there were 6.5 marriages celebrated in the Church for every single case for declaration of nullity of marriage introduced by Americans. It is important to note that 49% of Church annulment cases introduced globally in 2011 were from the United States followed by Poland (6.4%), Brazil (5.6%), and Italy (5.1%).


The National Vital Statistics System estimates that there were 2,118,000 marriages celebrated in the United States in 2011. That puts the 2011 data in the figure above in grim context. Only 163,775 marriages were celebrated in U.S. Catholic churches in that year. That's just 7.7% of all marriages celebrated in the country. Catholics make up nearly a quarter of the population and are no less likely to marry than those of other affiliations. This means that Catholics marrying these days are just as likely, if not more likely, to celebrate their marriages at the beach or country club than in their parish (...also something we've covered in a previous post). What impact does being married outside of the Church have on divorce odds? We don't know. We need another survey!

Although the Catholic "divorce rate" is lower than the U.S. average it is still a daunting figure (...yet far shy from the oft quoted "half of all marriages" myth). It is important to remember that the percentage represents more than 11 million individuals. Some are likely in need of more outreach and ongoing ministry from the Church.

Image above courtesy of jasoneppink at Flickr Creative Commons.  

9.12.2013

If You See Elephants (or Donkeys) When Looking at the Church Remove Your Goggles

 

In these deeply partisan times some may be tempted to place every institution and individual cleanly on the left or right of the U.S. political spectrum. However, there are some that may not easily fit these stereotypes—that cannot be seen clearly while wearing partisan-tinted goggles. The Catholic Church opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. This would seem to make it a natural "ally" of the Republican Party in the United States. Yet, the Church is clearly "out of place" on some other issues from this perspective. As some have recently noticed, the American bishops are supporting immigration reforms being put forth by Democrats. This appears to be creating some anomie among the media and a growing sense of urgency for a nested games "explanation" of the Church's actions, which as far as I can tell led to the following string of events:

1) The New York Times recently revealed in the middle of a good story on the proposed reforms that "Catholic leaders..." "say they are motivated by the Bible’s teachings and by the reality that many Latino immigrants are Catholics and represent a critical demographic for the church." No problems here, but an actual source would always be nice. Many Latino immigrants are indeed Catholic and the Church certainly wants to be sure that its members are treated with dignity and fairness. But then things start to get weird...

2) The Pew Research Center's FactTank blog (...normally very well done and just plain cool) followed-up by posting an entry saying the Church had "acknowledged to The New York Times that demographics are a factor" in their support of legislation. In Pew's defense they were providing some good data on the topic of immigration reform. However, the original title of the post (now changed) rather unfortunately appeared to highlight the role of demographics as a sole motivation—as if the Church was just looking to "pad" its numbers (...I don't think this is what they intended to communicate). This headline drew the attention of The Drudge Report, which linked to the post over the weekend.

3) Now, two steps and several days removed, The Economist (...yes that Economist) has stepped forward to "explain" and answer for us all, "Why is the Roman Catholic Church supporting immigration reform?" They provide a solution to this mystery by noting (and citing Pew, citing the Times): "One possible reason why the Catholic church is keen to cultivate Hispanic migrants could be that, if some of the immigrants are more socially conservative, their voices could become louder on topics such as contraception and abortion, over which the church has clashed with the Obama administration. Welcoming more Hispanics into the country would also swell congregations, extending the church’s influence from pulpits to polling stations" (...never mind that Hispanic Catholics lean heavily Democratic. Maybe some of Pew's data doesn't make it across the pond?). So there it is. All the dots are now connected. It's all probably a vast right-wing conspiracy. Now I get it! Thanks Economist.

Wait... The Economist is a European publication. You'd think they would know better with the Catholic Church also strongly and similarly advocating for the rights and well-being of immigrants in Europe. A recent Los Angeles Times story profiles this reality under the headline, "In Italy, protecting immigrants crosses the faith line." Here the story notes that: "In Europe, as in the United States, the Roman Catholic Church has assumed a leading role as a protector of, and advocate for, immigrants. But whereas the largest bloc of migrants to the United States are Catholic, the majority of European immigrants are Muslim." What "underlying motivations" can The Economist possibly uncover here? What was that about demographics again?

There really is no mystery or conspiracy to any of this. No need to look next at the symbology in da Vinci paintings for more answers. Instead I'd recommend "The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” available on the Vatican website (...The New Testament would work as well). The Church encompasses a global faith that was around for many hundreds of years before the U.S. ever appeared on a map and 94% of the world's more than 1 billion Catholics live outside of American borders. If a number of Catholics move from country A to country B, the number of Catholics in the world does not get any larger! The Church has no interest in amassing the faithful in any single country for political purposes or any other reason I can think of. What it is doing is supporting people, Catholic or not, who are vulnerable and in need ("harbor the harborless"). The sanctuary and support the Church provides to people often living on the margins is at the center of its mission in the world (...Am I the only one really following Pope Francis on Twitter?).

With that said there is certainly a lot more material for journalists to work with beyond immigration. Who will uncover the "conservative-leaning" conspiracies behind the Church's support for state social welfare programs, just wages, gun control, and labor union rights? What is really behind the Church's opposition to the death penalty? How long until some hard working journalist discovers the secret Church document that outlines the real and complete political agenda of the Church in the United States (or this online stash of copies of actual correspondence sent by bishops to government leaders)?

Even Church involvement in foreign affairs is coming under the careful microscope of American journalism. Some are now highlighting the Pope's seemingly "anti-Obama" stance opposing military intervention in Syria. Mark Phillips of CBS News lamented that Pope Francis has been "uncommonly active" using "strong language" and had "taken sides" as he "entered into the world of partisan international politics" in a manner that is "music to the Russian president's ears." One more conspiracy down. Everyone already knows the Church is highly motivated to support a former KGB officer. Makes perfect sense. On top of that, CBS referred to the Pope's widely attended prayer vigil as a "religious street protest," as if the Pope had organized a Tea Party rally. Mark Phillips really can't recall the Catholic Church ever opposing war in the past? Did it support U.S. military intervention under Republican administrations?  

My advice for reporters would be that if you are writing a story and you think you have identified some hidden agenda behind the Church's decisions or actions reach out to someone in your newsroom who really knows the Church well (e.g., the religion reporter on staff or someone else who regularly writes about the Church). Air out your theory with them before it goes to print. The Church will rarely fit well in the elephant or donkey costume. As Ross Douhat over at The New York Times recently noted:

"The cycle is familiar: A pope says something about a controversial issue that doesn’t fit the media’s semi-informed preconceptions about Roman Catholic teaching, a firestorm of coverage follows, and then better-informed observers are left to pick up the pieces and explain that no, actually, the pope is just reasserting an idea — an openness to Darwinian evolution, the possibility that nonbelievers might go to heaven, pick your controversy — that the church already accepted or believed or allowed to be considered."

Well said.

Image above courtesy of Dhammika Heenpella at Flickr Creative Commons. 

9.05.2013

Back to School: Catholic College "Ranks" and Risks


The Obama Administration recently turned its focus to non-profit higher education releasing plans to create government rankings for colleges that would eventually be linked to the availability of federal financial aid. As The Washington Post reports, "Obama aims to use executive authority to begin rating colleges by the fall of 2015 on criteria such as average tuition, scholarships and loan debt; the share of students receiving need-based Pell grants; graduation and transfer rates; graduate earnings; and the number of graduates who obtain advanced degrees." The aim of the plan is to make more information available to parents and students and to create pressures that might make college more affordable. For-profit colleges have already faced a similar treatment (...oddly enough triggering the recent sale of The Washington Post).

Traditional Rankings
How might this affect the 226 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States listed in The Official Catholic Directory? It would certainly shake up the traditional rankings one sees in the U.S. News & World Report (...methodology. Note that new rankings were released on Sept. 10). According to the most recent set of rankings the top 10 national Catholic colleges and universities are:
    1.  University of Notre Dame [#17 national rank]
    2.  Georgetown University [#21]
    3.  Boston College [#31]
    4.  Fordham University [#58]
    5.  Marquette University [#83]
    6.  Saint Louis University [#92]
    6.  University of San Diego [#92]
    8.  Loyola University (IL) [#106]
    8.  University of San Francisco [#106]
  10.  University of St. Thomas (MN) [#113]

The traditional rankings also include a separate listing for national liberal arts colleges. Here the top 10 Catholic institutions are:
    1.  College of the Holy Cross (MA) [#32 national rank]
    2.  St. John's University (MN) [#75]
    3.  Thomas Aquinas College (CA) [#82]
    4.  Saint Mary's College (IN) [#87]
    5.  Saint Michael's College (VT) [#90]
    6.  College of St. Benedict (MN) [#96]
    7.  Stonehill College (MA) [#100]
    8.  Sienna College (NY) [#112]
    9.  Saint Anselm College (NH) [#130]
  10.  St. Norbert College (WI) [#138]
Graduation Rates
One of the factors common to the traditional rankings and those proposed by President Obama is the use of graduation rates. For both parents and the government alike there is certainly an interest in students finishing their program and earning a degree. The Catholic top 10 for graduation rates includes some of the campuses ranking highly in the traditional ranks:
    1.  University of Notre Dame [95%]
    2.  Georgetown University [93%]
    2.  College of the Holy Cross [93%]
    4.  Boston College [92%]
    5.  Villanova University [88%]
    6.  Providence College [87%]
    7.  Santa Clara University [86%]
    8.  Loyola University (MD) [84%]
    9.  University of Scranton [83%]
  10.  St. Michael's College (VT) [82%]
Graduate Earnings
Moving on to "graduate earnings" the ranks begin to shift. One of the available measures here, from PayScale, is the 30 year return on investment (ROI) representing "net return on investment after the opportunity cost (High School Graduate Earnings) and cost of investment (tuition, room, board, books, etc.) have been taken into account" (...methodology). These data are far from perfect (more on this below) but they represent a glimpse at what the government rankings may find. These of course are important because they measure the ability to pay for the financing of college during one's career and also the degree to which the college provides "gainful employment." Here is the top 10 for Catholic colleges and universities:
    1.  Santa Clara University [$1,282,000]
    2.  University of Notre Dame [$1,250,000]
    3.  Manhattan College [$1,216,000]
    4.  Villanova University [$1,019,000]
    5.  Iona College (NY) [$958,700]
    6.  Saint Martin's University (WA) [$907,100]
    7.  Saint Mary's College of California [$904,300]
    8.  Christian Brothers University (TN) [$883,300]
    9.  Georgetown University [$881,100]
  10.  St. John's University (MN) [$860,800]
Net Annual Price
Before any student graduates or earns money from their degree, they must first pay for or finance their college education. Here the average net annual price of college is useful (...methodology). This measure "moves beyond an institution’s 'sticker price' and provides students and families with an idea of how much a first-time, full-time undergraduate student who was awarded aid pays to attend a particular institution after grant or scholarship aid is subtracted from the published cost of attendance." The top 10 here (i.e., with the lowest price) does not include almost every college as yet named above—the one exception being Christian Brothers University (...this list excludes specialty colleges focusing on one particular type of 4-year degree, such as nursing):
    1.  Brescia University (KY) [$10,442]
    2.  Calumet College of Saint Joseph (IN) [$10,617]
    3.  Our Lady of the Lake College (LA) [$11,392]
    4.  Our Lady of the Lake University (TX) [$12,580]
    5.  Mount Mary College (WI) [$13,586]
    6.  Christian Brothers University (TN) [$13,748]
    7.  Villa Maria College (NY) [$13,901]
    8.  Madonna University (MI) [$14,034]
    9.  Marygrove College (MI) [$14,059]
  10.  University of Mary (ND) [$14,077]
Students Receiving Pell Grants at "Best Value" Campuses
The Obama Administration also plans to include a measure in the rankings that indicates how many students receive Pell grants in an effort to find "best value" colleges and universities. These grants are government needs-based assistance. Below we show the top 10 ranked Catholic colleges and universities on The Washington Monthly's "Best Bang for the Buck" list (factoring in Pell grants, graduation rates, loan default rates, and net price) in terms of percentage of students receiving these grants. These are high-quality low-cost schools that enroll many students in need. Once again this list has no resemblance to the traditional rankings:
    1.  Dominican University (IL) [55%]
    1.  Georgian Court University (NJ) [55%]
    3.  St. Catherine University (MN) [54%]
    4.  Ursuline College (OH) [53%]
    5.  Marian University (WI) [50%]
    6.  Mount Marty College (SD) [49%]
    7.  Walsh University (OH) [46%]
    8.  Gannon University (PA) [45%]
    9.  La Roche College (PA) [44%]
  10.  Marian University (IN) [43%]
The real test of the newly proposed ranking system is how it will combine all of these factors (note that scores in 2015 would likely be based on what happening in higher education in 2013-14). How will these be weighted to create one score to allow for ranking? Expect this to be one of the most contentious issues of debate if the Administration seeks to link the rankings to availability of financial aid.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the proposed ranking is the inclusion of "graduate earnings." Where will these data come from? There are survey-based measures (e.g., PayScale) but these can lead to inferences about colleges and universities based on very small sample sizes. It is not easy to find a significant number of graduates from small colleges and universities in a random sample national survey. There is simply no existing infrastructure that could provide an income census that would allow for reliable and valid estimates for graduate income by college. Perhaps the reform could require individuals to name colleges attended on their IRS tax forms. Without something like this, there is no existing methods that will provide reliable and valid data for every college in the country.

Yet even if we did start putting our colleges on our tax forms how do we disentangle these data for students who attend multiple colleges and earn multiple degrees? I may attend a junior college and then transfer into a small four-year liberal arts college and then go onto medical school. As a surgeon I will likely earn a very high income. My undergraduate education played some role in this (it helped me get into graduate school) but would it be fair to link my mid-career salary back in full to the junior college and liberal arts campus?

No matter what shape the formula takes, any major policy change could have a number of unintended consequences. For example, The Affordable Act will undoubtedly provide more people access to health insurance but the employer mandate may also make it more difficult to get a full-time job (i.e., 30 hours or more) and some employers appear to be dropping coverage for spouses.

If the proposed college rankings are linked to federal financial aid, colleges may look to boost their position by cutting tuition costs by freezing hires of new professors and using more part-time adjuncts and graduate students to teach classes. To improve prospects for graduate earnings and employment they may drop degree programs and majors that "under-perform" in the job market. Colleges may forgo offerings in social work, humanities, and liberal arts for more engineering, computing, mathematics, and health programs (...the top school in the country for 30-year ROI is Harvey Mudd College which focuses on engineering, science, and math. Graduates from this campus receive an average $2.1 million 30-year ROI). Many may say that's just what America needs! But there will always be a need for liberal arts—even for engineers.


If a college is faced with losing access to aid why would they ever accept students who could "jeopardize" their scores? Students (and their parents) might be required by colleges to undergo background and credit checks before being accepted as a means to predict their likelihood of default on any loans. They may become even less likely to enroll potential students who do not have the best test scores and grades as these individuals may be deemed less likely to get a high paying job after graduation. The reform may make colleges for the "privileged" and "elite" even more fitting of this stereotype. It has the potential to put a hard brake on the socioeconomic mobility college has traditionally provided students (...one positive unintended consequence might be an increase in resources for career services and post-graduate job placement on campuses in an effort to maximize graduate earnings).

Catholic colleges and universities are also private institutions operating without state subsidies. This creates a built-in disadvantage when it comes to tuition cost. Students attending public institutions pay lower tuition, on average, as the taxpayers of the state they are in often help underwrite the operations of those colleges and universities (these benefits are usually focused on students with in-state residency). It is unclear if the new system would take this institutional difference into account and factor in costs to taxpayers as well as parents and students.

The proposal also may end up limiting choice. Under the current system, the federal government invests in students not institutions with grants and loans leaving it up to the individual to select the accredited college of their choice. The proposed reform would presumably limit aid for colleges that do not rank highly and thus steer students to federally preferred institutions (...if the policies mirror the reforms used in for-profit higher education minimum performance benchmarks may be set. Campuses who fail to meet these benchmarks would either have their access to aid reduced or cut off). The national perspective of the rankings would ignore the reality that many students choose a college within a local region and save significant money by living with their parents or other family. Thus a college that may not be deemed by the government as "affordable" in the abstract may actually be the most affordable to that student geographically speaking. If aid is limited on this campus they may be forced to look elsewhere and pay significant room and board costs.

The proposed ranking system also over-emphasizes monetary factors. It would deny the reality that some people do not make career and education decisions based on simple dollar costs and benefits. For example, many Catholics choosing to go into ministry are not chasing engineer-like incomes. Yet it may cost them significant sums to obtain degrees and certifications to work in this field. They may be willing to make a greater sacrifice to earn these for their love of a vocation—even if the government tells them that this is a "bad value" (note the starting annual salaries for undergraduate religious studies/theology degrees average $41,000 with mid-career earnings rising to $48,000).

The rankings may also be a big problem for many of the newer small Catholic colleges that have emerged in recent decades. Some of these campuses market themselves as "traditional" or "orthodox"—a place where parents can feel "safer" sending their children and having them graduate with even more faith than they entered with. I am unaware of any academic or other professional study that has systematically measured the success of these claims. However, there is some existing data for how well some of these campuses may rank under the proposed system and the news there could be problematic. As with any new campus there are growing pains in establishing an identity and credentials (e.g., obtaining accreditation, developing a reputation with employers). These colleges also have small numbers of alumni making it difficult to make inferences about career success and salaries of graduates. Some of these schools could struggle under the proposed ranking system.

When the government says it is introducing legislation to make something more "affordable" this doesn't necessarily mean it will cost less. I am not sure the proposed college rankings and reforms would, as intended, make college any cheaper. Yet, with or without government intervention, a market correction to college costs is likely on the horizon. Similar to the dynamics of the housing crisis there is a real limit to what Americans can pay for college—their income. College costs can only consume so much of income before the bubble bursts. For example, from the 1970s to the early 2000s housing prices hovered around 300% of income in the United States. During the housing bubble, with exotic mortgages available (e.g., interest only, ARMs), housing prices approached 500% of incomes. There is only so much house a family can afford if incomes are not growing with prices (...and housing will not really recover until incomes grow, which will require significant reductions in unemployment. The current housing "recovery" may be a new bubble fueled by institutional investors targeting real estate). The same economics works for tuition or tulips.

The figure below shows median incomes and average college costs (tuition, room, and board) in recent years. In 1981, median income was just under $20,000 per year and annual college costs were just under $3,500. Thus, college costs represented 18% of income. In 2011, college costs made up 44% of income, on average.


Perhaps the simplest affordability reform available would be to cap the amount of federal financial aid available with annual adjustments linked to student population and an inflation index (CPI) or a measure of income growth to contain the formation of bubbles. Let parents and students continue to choose their campus (and major) but send a signal to colleges and universities that those choices will be made in an environment without rapid growth in the amount of federal financing available.

Another sorely needed reform would be to allow judges to fully discharge student loan debt in bankruptcies where this is deemed necessary. Neither political party should claim that they are "working for" college students/graduates until such a change is made. Someone fighting cancer who loses their job should not have to possibly deal with government debt collectors—especially when the government is slated to make a healthy profit off the guaranteed student loan business (as a monopoly lender since 2010). College loans should be treated no differently than other types of consumer debt. In President Obama's remarks announcing the proposed reforms he noted that without change "the government will run out of money." If that happens it likely won't be because of college loans as these are adding to public coffers not draining them.

In isolation, more information is also a welcome development. The marketplace certainly needs more than the traditional college rankings. But rather than coming up with another arbitrary single mechanism that can rank all colleges, perhaps the government could simply make existing resources, that would likely provide the backbone of the new rankings, more accessible and user friendly? Give people the information to find the exact type of campus that fits them rather than trying to press the higher education system into one mold.

Market corrections can be jarring and very painful and the government can try to foster a softer landing. Hopefully these reforms will be thoroughly examined and damaging unintended consequences identified. Sometimes the side-effects of a treatment can be worse than the disease. A single score-based ranking of colleges pegged to availability of aid could be lethal to some campuses and the dreams of many young Americans. Catholic colleges would certainly have no immunity to these changes.

Image above courtesy of Sean MacEntee at Flickr Creative Commons. 

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