A few days ago a commenter asked if Darwin and I would talk a bit about our experience at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I meant to do so right away, but things got wacky (or wackier), but here I am now, Anonymous -- I didn't forget you, I promise!
I can't offer any "celebrity" stories: I never met Scott Hahn or took any of his classes; I was never stuck in the elevator with Fr. Michael Scanlon; the only theology classes I took were on the Austrian campus (and those, by the way, were very good). However, I can report that it is possible to get a very good education even at a second-tier institution if you put your mind to it. Both Darwin and I were in extremely small majors -- he was one of two majors to graduate in Classics his year, and I was English with a Drama concentration with five other students. (The school has since added a Drama major, but the concentration was intensive enough to effectively be its own department.) Our professors were dedicated and thorough, and communicated a love of their chosen field that was informed by their faith. Overall, I'd rate our classroom experiences very highly.
The thing about going to a strongly Catholic college like Steubenville is that, while you don't have to deal with productions of the Vagina Monologues or dorm staff handing out fruit flavored condoms as party favors, the fact that everyone is Catholic (and most of them pretty faithful Catholics at that) means that all of the campus political struggles are family quarrels. On the other hand, having the quarrels be between basically faithful Catholics (at least most of the time) allows one to relax and think, "At least we're all Catholic." Darwin has been known to say that one of his primary reasons for picking Steubenville over a secular college is that, while he thought he'd successfully retain his faith at a secular college, he was afraid that in such an adverse environment he'd become increasingly bitter and reactionary, and end up condemning more than he actually had to just in an effort to stave off the ravening hordes. And instead of staving off ravening hordes, he met me, and that's ended up much more pleasantly.
One thing that often struck me about Steubenville was that Academia and Student Life were competing with each other for the heart and soul of the school. On the one hand, I believe that there's been a push to make Steubenville more of an academic powerhouse, and most of the professors I dealt with were serious about their subjects and about expecting a level of maturity and committment from students. On the other, Student Life played Spiritual Big Brother, relishing the parent-protector role to excess . Those who attended Steubenville during the same years we did will no doubt remember the flap about placing large windows in the doors of the common rooms, one of the few places on campus where members of the opposite sex could sit together with any degree of privacy. Perhaps someone's virtue was protected by this move; many dating couples found that it put a large amount of stress into their relationships by removing the one sanctuary from the inquisitorial glance of the small religious institution. Or, to give a lesser example, the affair of the kiosks -- brought in to better regulate student postings; removed because they became a standing practical joke and started reappearing in odd locations.
The prevailing spiritual atmosphere of Steubenville in the 80s and 90s was charismatic. I believe that was beginning to shift by the time we arrived. Many more students were becoming interested more traditional and less demonstrative forms of worship, and most of the professors I knew were actively against the excessive emotionalism bred by the charismatic style. (There's another example of the dichotomy between Steubenville's religious reputation as a Charismatic center and the trend toward a more academic identity.) The once a month Latin Mass was well-attended and the Sunday evening Vespers service was also very popular. Darwin and I, along with many other older students, went to Sunday Mass at St. Peter's, the downtown church attended by many professors and their families.
I don't at all regret attending Steubenville (though at the time Darwin and I often chafed under the more juvenile restrictions of campus life). Those who just want a four-year retreat and less focus on academics can certainly find that experience there. But especially in the smaller departments there's a combination of personal attention, academic rigor, and Catholic formation that makes for an excellent education for those who willing to pursue one.
Addendum: if any FUS grads want to agree, disagree, or offer their own experiences, please do, if only for the sake of our anonymous friend in Ypsilanti who wanted to know. :)