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The story behind the new Catholic college that helps students avoid “crippling debt”

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College of St. Joseph the Worker

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 07/31/22

The College of St. Joseph the Worker is attracting students who want to learn a trade and earn a degree without huge debt.

You might have heard about a new Catholic college in Steubenville, Ohio, that offers a degree and trade education at a very reasonable cost.

The College of St. Joseph the Worker is attracting students with the tagline, “Learn a trade, earn a degree and graduate without crippling debt.” It unites a liberal arts program in Catholic Studies with practical trade school.

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The College will offer several different “tracks” for students. There’s the six-year Craftsman Track, in which students earn a bachelor’s degree in Catholic Studies and graduate trained in a trade and financially net positive.

The three-year BA Track is a continuous 36-month program in which students earn a BA in Catholic Studies and also learn the basics of all five trades offered. It’s just right for “those called to work in an office, an operating room, or a courthouse—and who still want to know their way around a workshop.”

Finally, there’s the one-year Craftsmanship Certificate course, which is a “gap year” program for those wanting to learn the basics of all five offered trades (carpentry, HVAC, electrical, plumbing, and masonry) and study the fundamentals of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

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The College has just made its public announcement and is currently taking applications for its first year, starting Fall 2023. They will accept 30 students for this first year. 

The College currently has five craftsmen who will train students in the trades and six professors and teaching fellows who will lead the BA in Catholic Studies—some from elite institutions such as the University of Oxford and Notre Dame.

So why a new Catholic college? What sets this college apart?

We were wondering the same thing, so we jumped at the chance to catch up with Jacob Imam, a founder of the college. He shared some of the inspiration for the college and plans for its first year.

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What inspired the founding of the College of St. Joseph the Worker?

A few years ago, I was chatting with a friend about higher education. He was working in admissions at a Catholic college at the time and feeling increasingly guilty about arranging federal loans for students whom he knew would struggle to pay off their education for decades to come. Was the education worth the years in debt? 

We started to spitball alternative ideas: How could students still study the sacred truths of the Catholic tradition, which truly do free the soul and enlighten the mind, while not financially limping into adulthood?

The trades were, to us, the obvious answer. The financial benefits are well known and obvious. Apprentices do not pay to be trained but rather are paid to train. The average tradesman will out-earn the person with an undergraduate degree until their mid-fifties—if not forever. 

But the work is often better as well. As Pope Saint John Paul II liked to remind people, the Word became flesh and spent most of the years of his life at the carpenter’s bench (Laborem exercens 6). If Christ reveals true humanity to us, then we must take his life as a craftsman seriously. 

Working in the trades is often more meaningful and fulfilling than working behind a desk. At the end of each day, a craftsman can point to what he did, and his labor is more directly a gift to someone—which, as Benedict XVI reminds us in Caritas in veritate, is the entire point of the economy.

Of course, we did not want to leave the education behind, as understanding the Catholic tradition—in its subtlety, dynamism, and beauty—is more sorely needed now than ever before. To that end, we designed a Catholic Studies BA that is particularly oriented at helping the laity understand the theological and philosophical scope of their mission, which Vatican II says is to sanctify the temporal order. Thus in our classes we will teach everything from Trinitarian metaphysics to the history of Catholic economic theory and practice.

Why is there a need for another Catholic college? What sets this college apart?

While Catholic colleges may teach the faith in the classroom and celebrate liturgies in a chapel on campus, their formal structures are very similar if not exactly the same as any other modern university. The average student graduating from a private university leaves over $30,000 in debt. 

Sending off students with $30,000+ in debt is not a Catholic model—especially if they only studied the humanities and are not set up well for a particular line of work. By directing our students to focus on studies purely for their nourishment of their souls and their acumen as evangelists, parents, and parishioners, we can free them not to think of their studies as a financial benefit but as a spiritual one. 

But the financial issue is still incredibly important: how can they live well as evangelists, parents, and parishioners if they do not have dignified work? Even St. Paul made tents. The trades, which are contemplative and creative industries, are their means by which they can earn a living and serve their communities. 

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Tell me about the trade program. How will the students learn a trade? What is the value in learning these trades?

The College of St. Joseph the Worker has three tracks: a one year craftsmanship certificate (akin to a Gap Year Program), an accelerated BA track (in which students earn their degrees in three years by prioritizing their book studies over the trades), and the Craftsman BA Track.

In this last track, students will study the trades and complete their BA in six years. The first year of this program, students will be taught the basics of five trades: carpentry, HVAC, masonry, plumbing, and electrical. This will be in our shop. The second two years they will continue to study these five trades but on real job sites in the Steubenville area, making money as they do. Beginning year four, they select one trade in particular to concentrate in. We then place them with a master craftsman somewhere around the US (preferably near their homes) who will take them on as an apprentice while they finish their BA from a distance.

When I read about the college, the first thing I thought of was something St. Benedict wrote in his Rule: “When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks.” In what ways does the College prepare men for a life of contemplation during manual labor?

St. Benedict’s rule—which leads his monks into a life that seamlessly moves from the chapel to the library to the fields—is the same general model the College of St. Joseph the Worker is adopting. The three spheres of prayer, of study, and of work are ultimately totally interlinked and mutually reinforcing. The very nature of our faith, in which a central truth is that the Word became flesh and picked up a hammer, reveals this connection. 

What is the most important thing to know about the College of St. Joseph the Worker?

As our society is degrading morally, philosophically, and culturally, the way that we will recover can only be in Christ through his Holy Church and with the Sacraments. 

Converting to Christ now in the 21st century will be much like the early Church’s initial conversion to Christ under Rome. We will need to lower ourselves, to assume the form of a slave, to serve our God and our neighbors to death, and to do so always in love. 

The College of St. Joseph the Worker intends to play a humble part in this larger conversion—which means training students both physically and intellectually, cultivating their heads, their hearts, and their hands, for this great end.

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EducationHigher EducationWork
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