By PAUL THIGPEN, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 18, 2008
This year, students at Southern Catholic College got to savor the last lazy days of summer at home a little longer than usual.
Classes typically begin in late August, but this fall they started a week after Labor Day. Why the special dispensation? Construction workers needed the extra time to finish expanding two residence halls before students arrived.
Their work is the latest addition to the school’s 100-acre campus, nestled beside a lake in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Dawsonville. It’s just one sign of the rapid growth at Georgia’s first and only residential Catholic college.
Now in its fourth year of operation, Southern Catholic has seen enrollment climb from 71 students in its first year to 240 students this fall, with 64 new freshmen and 12 new transfers. Student organizations on campus are multiplying. In May the school is set to graduate its first class.
The faculty has expanded as well. New additions this fall bring the total to 10 full time and 12 adjunct professors.
Meanwhile, SCC has been pre-accredited by the American Academy for Liberal Education, a nationally recognized accreditor of liberal arts institutions. This status, the first stage in the accreditation process for new colleges, makes students eligible for federal assistance through the Title IV program.
Academic Excellence, Catholic Identity
The rise in enrollment at the school is fueled in part by the explosion of the Catholic population in Georgia and throughout the South in recent years.
But that’s not the only factor contributing to the college’s growth.
A new generation of Southern students is seeking academic excellence grounded in a strong Catholic identity, and Southern Catholic is well positioned to meet that demand. The school’s curriculum reflects the convergence of faith and reason so essential to the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Dr. Kelly Bowring is associate professor of sacred theology at the college.
“We’re attracting students from the Southeast and all over the country,” he explains, “who are looking for a dynamic and faithful Catholic college where they can live their faith while engaging in rigorous academic studies.”
“When they graduate, they want to do more than get a good job. They want to make a positive impact on their world.”
Jordan Bunster-Correa, a sophomore business major from Marietta, said he chose SCC because he was “looking for a good academic environment where I could grow deeper in my faith.” With that foundation, he plans to go on to law school.
The lively spiritual atmosphere on campus serves as a magnet for many students. Daily and weekly Masses in the 120-seat campus chapel are well attended. Students have the opportunity for confession four times a week, with rosary and eucharistic adoration both once a week. Spiritual lectures, retreats and seasonal devotions enrich campus religious life.
Striking new symbols of the college’s vibrant spiritual life will soon appear along a path on a hillside overlooking the lake: 14 statues, each five feet tall, representing the Stations of the Cross, the gift of a private donor.
A new student-led initiative recently began fundraising efforts to build a Marian grotto.
“I’ve witnessed many students on this campus who are not afraid to be Catholic, who desire an intimacy with God,” said Father Brian Higgins, the school’s full-time chaplain. “They realize that faith and education are complementary in the total formation of men and women created in the image of God.”
The name “Southern Catholic” might suggest that the college serves only the surrounding region. But 25 home states are now represented in the student body. A rising national reputation has become another factor in the school’s growth, attracting students outside the South, from as far away as New England and the West Coast.
“The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College,” published last fall by the Cardinal Newman Society, featured SCC as one of 21 recommended American colleges and universities that “most faithfully live their Catholic identity and provide a quality undergraduate education.” In addition, several periodicals with national audiences have brought favorable attention to the school.
Anne Marie Huckins, a theology major from Auburn, Calif., first heard good things about Southern Catholic from friends in Rhode Island. She traveled thousands of miles from home to attend the college, she says, because “it’s such a solid Catholic place.”
Now a junior, Anne Marie has been especially impressed by the faculty. “The professors have a great love for what they teach. Their passion inspires me to keep learning.”
Her observations are supported by the most recent annual report of the National Survey of Student Engagement. Students from 774 undergraduate institutions around the country were asked about the quality of their college experience.
In the 2008 survey taken last spring, SCC received solid scores in all the study’s designated “benchmark” areas. These areas include level of academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, active and collaborative learning, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment.
But students gave the school outstanding marks especially with regard to its Catholic identity.
Of those surveyed, 89 percent said that “ethical and spiritual development of students is an important part of the mission at this institution.” Ninety-six percent affirmed that the school offers “opportunities for students to strengthen their religious commitments.”
As a result, 86 percent of the students reported that their experience at the school contributed substantially to their “developing a deepened sense of spirituality.” This compares to an average of only 52 percent at all the Catholic colleges surveyed. Ninety-three percent of SCC students said the same about the school’s role in helping them develop “a personal code of values and ethics.”
In terms of overall satisfaction with their educational experience, 90 percent rated Southern Catholic as “excellent” or “good.”
In all these ways, SCC promises to make an invaluable contribution to the mission of Catholic education in the United States. Yet the school’s youth and growth intensify the challenge faced by all colleges, public as well as private: how to fund development and secure the financial future. The college must rely on broad support from the Catholic community, in Georgia and beyond.
SCC’s new scholarship and capital campaign is called “Celebrating Our Beginning, Solidifying Our Future.” Its goal is to fund the school’s scholarship programs, underwrite the endowment fund and allow construction of a multipurpose recreation center, which will also include much-needed classroom space and faculty offices.
Raising those funds is complicated by the fact that most of the South lacks a tradition of Catholic higher education.
According to college President Jeremiah Ashcroft, relatively few Georgians have attended a Catholic college. Even at Catholic high schools, only a small minority of graduates choose Catholic institutions to continue their studies.
“An important part of my job,” he notes, “is to help potential donors, as well as prospective students and their families, appreciate the great value of a distinctively Catholic education that extends into adulthood.”
In fact, the president’s vision for Southern Catholic includes much more than undergraduate education.
“Once the baccalaureate program has been firmly established,” he said, “we hope to develop a solid graduate program and a robust lifelong learning program.”
“There are so many needs in Catholic higher education in Georgia beyond the traditional college offerings. We could provide specialized programs for religious educators, homeschoolers, retirees and many others.”
The ultimate goal, Ashcroft said, is “to build leaders for our families, our communities and our church.”
Quick Facts About SCC
Type of Institution: Catholic, coed, undergraduate liberal arts college
History: Georgia’s first and only residential Catholic college, founded by lay Catholics in 2000; opened in the fall of 2005.Location: 100-acre campus in Dawsonville, an hour north of Atlanta
Current Enrollment: 240 students
Faculty: 10 full time, 12 adjunct
Student/Faculty Ratio: 11:1
Average Class Size: 17
Majors: Business, English, history, integrated sciences, philosophy, psychology, sacred theology
Financial Aid: Merit-based scholarships and need-based aid, including federal Title IV assistance
Contact: (866) 722-2003 or www.southerncatholic.org
Paul Thigpen is professor of sacred theology at Southern Catholic College and editor of The Catholic Answer, a national bimonthly magazine.