Why You Should Attend a Christian College – And Why You Should Not

On Christian Colleges

By John Mark Reynolds

Government schools are less expensive, because you have been paying for them, are paying for them, and will be paying for them through taxpayer subsidies for the rest of your life. So, not using them is a tough financial choice. Most Christian colleges receive indirect support from the government through student aid, but are often more expensive than their “secular” counterparts.

And yet it seems odd, and maybe even wrong, for a Christian to choose a college that ignores half of reality and sets up a discipleship with anybody hostile to the Lordship of Jesus. In this post, then, the third part in a series on the future of Christian colleges, I want to address the questions of why one might choose a Christian college, why one might choose a non-Christian college, and how one might attend college well.

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Reasons to Attend a Christian College

1.     College is not just job training; it is highly influential in forming a worldview.

Don’t you hope college changes you? If it doesn’t make you better, what good is it?

The person who goes to college is not the same as the person who attended. Choosing to be mentored by mostly non-Christian faculty is a choice that may make it less likely you will be an active Christian as an adult. More important, even I still go to church a non-Christian college will secularize important ideas I have.

2.     Most Christian colleges focus of undergraduate education.

There are advantages to a school with strong graduate programs, but they tend to be indirect. Most Christian colleges put their best people in the classroom with students. They may make less use of part-time faculty or graduate students, if they don’t they are the worst choice!

3.     Christian colleges talk about all of reality.

Is Jesus Lord? If so, then that fact impacts all of reality. Christian colleges can take that fact into account.

The world is fallen. If the school doesn’t take that into account as well, then it is not very Christian, just narrow!

4.     Christian colleges are tuition driven.

If a Christian college fails to deliver, the market quickly delivers a crushing blow. Many schools are so insulated by endowments that irresponsibility continues too long.

5.     Christian colleges more easily avoid educational fads.

Rare is the Christian college eager to jump into the educational trend of the moment. Don’t think that matters? Look at college catalogues from the 1970s and their predictions (based on courses) of the World of Tomorrow. Count the number that focused on things that still matter . . . and count the number that make you laugh out loud. If it “lols” today, then you wasted money yesterday.

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Reasons Not to Attend a Christian College

1.     Christian college is often more expensive. 

If you borrow much more than the cost of a new car, then college debt has gone too high. Christian colleges may be out of your price range, but apply and see before you assume this is true. Few people pay the sticker price.

Don’t be afraid to negotiate.

2.     Christian college or any small school can be academically second-rate.

Never attend a school without regional accreditation. Accreditation is not much, but it does mean your units can transfer and your degree will be recognized . . . even when your small school is not.

Never attend a school whose faculty lack terminal degrees from a wide variety of institutions. If they mostly hire their own graduates or the graduates of only one or two other schools, it is sign of dangerous academic inbreeding.

A school with fewer than one thousand undergraduates may be very good, but in the imminent higher education contraction, they may close. Take care with such a choice.

Read work by scholars in the major you are choosing. Of course, if you are film major, then you should watch their films! Do these professors seem like the sort you would wish to become? What is their job placement rate?

Never do an on-line degree program where the student-teacher ratio is different than off-line degrees. The Internet makes a geographical difference, but it did not increase the ability of a professor to mentor a student. Demand attention on-line or off-line.

Never do an on-line class if the school offering it will not take the class seamlessly in their on-site programs.

3.     Christian colleges can recruit “Christian” and then be expensive and secular.

I sat at a meeting where “Christian” college professors referred to “Aunt Tillie pitches.” These college descriptions convinced parents and alum to give, but had nothing to do with the daily life of a school.

Google professors. Find their Facebook pages. Talk to the sociologists and psychologists and ask questions. Find out what the faculty actually think, not what they allegedly think.

Many a Catholic school has few faculty members who support Catholic teaching. Many an Evangelical school is similar.

Why pay extra for a State University with a godly president? Students don’t often see the President!

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Questions to Ask Self Before Attending a Particular Christian College

1. How important is a Christian mentor to you? Who is a Christian?

Each Christian college draws lines differently. Some hire mostly non-Christian faculty. Some only hire Christian faculty.

Why pay extra to go to a college where only a few faculty members are actually Christian? My opinion is that for undergraduates such schools rarely are worth the cost difference.

Who is a Christian? If you think Catholics are not Christians or that people who drink are damned, then you should select a school that agrees.  Most Christians I meet, however, are less concerned about being confronted by a John Paul II Catholic or a Billy Graham Evangelical, than rising secularism in the culture. Is our present problem likely to be our view on End Times or the view that humans are just machines?

There is something bizarre about a school that reads dead Catholics but will not hire living ones. There is something odd about a school that will buy C.S. Lewis’ furniture but would not hire him.

Often such schools are narrow on nineteenth century issues, because their doctrinal statements were written then, but useless on contemporary ones. They have professors with the “correct” views on Calvinism, but secularized views on human behavior!

As a parent if you think it equally tragic that your child becomes a practicing Baptist (or some other group) as an atheist (or nearly so), then don’t pick a school that hires those people.

On the other hand, if you see yourself making common cause daily with broader Christian groups, then pick such a school. It is ridiculous to pay extra to segregate yourself on nineteenth century lines unless those are your issues.

2. How important are behavioral standards to you? What ones?

I found it refreshing to attend undergraduate schools where my Christian values were encouraged.

The issue is how strong you want the encouragement and on what issues?

3. Will you probably be going to graduate school? 

For most students, graduate school is (sadly) the new college. If you are going to graduate school, and your college has a good graduate school placement rate, then going to a smaller school will not matter. You will be “known” by your last degree.

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Questions to Ask the College Before Attending a Particular College

1.     What percentage of classes are taught by ‘adjuncts’ or teaching assistants?

An adjunct professor is (generally) part time. He or she often works in multiple schools. You may be paying extra for the same professor also working at the community college down the street!

There are good part-time people, but avoid a school or program that hits twenty-five percent or higher of these faculty. The school or program is paying for other things through your tuition in a class that has not been prioritized.

2.     What percentage of “core” or “general education” classes are taught by ‘adjuncts’ or teaching assistants?

A big part of a liberal arts education is in classes outside the major. Sometimes those are not fully funded. Avoid schools where part time folks do over twenty-five percent of these classes. 

Imagine paying extra for Bible only to discover that the school doesn’t invest in Bible with full time faculty!

3.     How much Bible or Christianity is required of all students? 

Three units? Really? Anything less than nine is not serious. At least two schools require thirty and that is not a bad thing!

4.     How strong is the “core” or “general education?” Is there a program or is it just a bunch of requirements? 

If it is not a plan or program (a separate school), then it will too often be a bottom priority of the department in charge. It will often be incoherent with little in common between the English class and the Science class.

5.     What is the job or graduate school placement in my major?

If they don’t know, don’t go.

6.     Do the President and Provost teach or have they ever taught?

If not, then the educational vision will suffer. Avoid if you can schools that are run by educational administrators with little or no classroom time.

7.     Is there tenure?

Tenure can be good, protecting controversial ideas. Generally, the smaller Christian college itself represents diversity to the educational establishment. Tenure can result in slow motion secularization in the school as professors escape scrutiny.

Schools without tenure gain flexibility and are often ideologically coherent, but can become too narrow or tyrannical. Check out faculty turnover by comparing five years of catalogs. Are there professors who have been there over their whole career? If not, this is a very bad sign that the school is too rigid.

8.     Are classes Socratic? How large is the largest class?

College is about people: the student and teacher relationship is the heart. Large classes can be good, but only rarely. Some schools advertise “small average” classes, because the major classes for upperclassmen drives down the average.

I don’t think propaganda is education. A Christian college should take every thought captive to Christ, but that means being able to talk about every thought. No Christian should ever hide from any issue or from any disagreement.

Students should be allowed to consider views contrary to the professors or school without fear of dismissal or retribution. This is a big problem in all schools Christian, secular, liberal, or conservative.

You don’t want to “stay” a Christian because you were shielded from other ideas. If you stay a Christian, may it be because you considered all ideas.

How large are the core classes? Forget schools that often have classes bigger than thirty. A person with a quiet personality in such a class can easily get an ‘A’ without personal interaction!

A sage on a stage with fifty students may be edu-taining, but he is missing a part of educating. Discussion with a professor, not another student, is part of education. Big lectures are fine, but only if they lead to hours of conversation!

9.     How does a student get a faculty advisor? How many meetings on average does a student have? 

Every school talks about advising. Often this means getting the schedule done, but has nothing to do with mentoring. Is advising mentoring? Can you be mentored in two meetings a year?

10.  If you are looking for a “conservative” college, talk to the political science, English, sociology, and psychology faculty. Ask questions.  

These are the faculty in most Christian colleges that are often “out of step” with what is advertised. Look at what faculty post on their doors. Google these folk and see what they say when not pitching you.

  • Jonathan

    In the section on biblical education, JMR notes that at least two schools require 30 hours of Bible credit. To my knowledge, these are Northwestern College in Minnesota (www.nwc.edu) and Biola University in California (www.biola.edu). Both schools are serious about Christian higher education and meet many of the criteria JMR lays out. They both deserve serious consideration by those considering Christian higher education.

  • C. E. P.

    Thanks for this great post. I’m a recent grad (’11) of Florida’s largest public University but I started out at Wheaton College, the “Harvard of Christian Colleges.” I got to see the best and worst of both the secular and the Christian. The most influential part of college was that I CHOSE to keep the worldview that I was taught growing up: the Bible is all-true and God means what he says in it. That made all the difference and both institutions. I had great faculty and awful faculty at both. I had great friends and awful friends at both. I have awful debt from one (can you guess which) and next to no debt at the other.

    Happy college hunting!

  • rvs

    Thanks for this rigorous conversation. I do sense that Christian colleges have been far too happy to jump on the assessment bandwagon (quantitative rubrics ad infinitum). The Sermon on the Mount, a 7.78. What does that mean? Who knows.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/bethanyklaursen Bethany

    Hi, John Mark. I enjoy reading these posts. I’d love to hear what you have to say about choosing and thriving in a graduate school, since there are very few Christian options for graduate school, and perhaps the purpose for attending is different. Thanks! Bethany (Edwards ’06)

  • DanO

    To add to Jonathan’s two we could include Multnomah Bible in Portland. Their current catalog says that one needs 43 semester hours of Bible & theology. I went there in the 80s and came out well prepared for seminary.

  • Alice

    30 hours of Bible for students who are not even minoring in Bible is insane! That means you are doing almost an extra year’s worth of work and paying for all those extra classes on top of really high tuition! There is no good reason to require 30 hours of Bible classes when the students are already going to chapel every weekday and when every class is taught from a Christian perspective. Now some Christian colleges let students add so many extra bible classes on top of the required number to get a minor or get a vocational ministry degree in addition to your regular degree. That is reasonable. My college required 16 Bible hours for all students which was not terribly unreasonable, but it made planning out our course load every semester a real headache because you either had to take 14 hours a semester instead of 15, or pay extra money to take 17 hours. Thankfully, they recently had compassion and stopped charging extra for a 17 hour load.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I do like learning about the Bible in an academic world and having deep discussions about it, but almost every Bible class I took in college was a complete waste of time, and this was also the general sentiment I heard, though students couldn’t complain too much about all the easy A’s. A high percentage of students who go to a Christian college have grown up in religious families so they already know basic facts about the Bible! There was no need to spend all those classes being taught basic facts like “Jesus walked on water” and “David killed a giant.” The classes were all about basic facts, almost no deeper study or application. I understand that Biblical literacy in America is extremely low, but what if there was the option to test out of the basic classes and take classes that are actually on a college level? I loved Senior Bible because we had many challenging, practical discussions, and I learned a lot from the professor. I also loved the chapels where speakers talked about difficult topics and made me reconsider many opinions that I had previously taken for granted.

    If people want to go to those colleges, more power to them, and I’m sure not all required Bible classes are like the ones I took, but I understand why most Christian colleges do not require 30 hours.

  • Kraig

    For those that choose to attend a Christian college or university, do not major in Bible/theology. I think it would be wise for these institutions to not offer such undergraduate majors. Even if you think you are going into full-time ministry for the rest of your life, just wait until seminary to get all the Bible/theology you will need. Instead, get a degree that helps you get a job in the marketplace, and if interested take Bible/theology electives.

  • pilgrim

    Maybe being plugged into a good church while at the most secular of colleges trumps being in a bad church at the most christian of colleges.

    I’m also less baffled by a school that will read dead catholics and not hire live ones. It’s the same reason you should read nonChristian authors even if the school doesn’t hire nonChristians. Perhaps in their minds, mentors who reflect their understanding of the gospel is more important than a broad culturally conservative cobelligerence?

    And agree with the last couple commenters: don’t do a Bible major. Learn your Bible in church, but do something that will broaden, not narrow your horizons for undergrad; something like history, classics, literature, or such; it’ll potentially be better preparation for seminary.


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