What Christians Should Seek in a College Education

What Christians Should Seek in a College Education February 19, 2013

Note: Below is the second part of Dr. Reynolds’ series on the future of Christian education. See the first part here.


Reasonable expectations matter: if you judge The Voice because you wanted to watch Downton Abbey, then your standards will be skewed and both experiences will be diminished.

What should you expect from a college?

There is a personal element to the choice, but given the expense, perhaps it would be wise to know what American college is designed to do. College is not, or should not be, designed to be entertaining — so pause before picking a college based on “cruise ship experiences.”

Americans have given colleges at least two jobs: training for the workplace and creating leaders for civilization. There is tension to these tasks and doing one well does not guarantee that the other will be done well.

Some schools will get you a good job when you graduate, but fail to expand your horizons or make you a better person. For a Christian, a question must be whether an undergraduate education that ignores metaphysics, and the Lordship of Christ, is not too limited to do the job well.

The school that is (at best) ambivalent to the Bible, the Church, Christian morality, and Jesus is missing the center-point of reality. Creating a person that compartmentalizes religion from the rest of reality is dangerous: a person with a good understanding of physics but a poor understanding of metaphysics is a threat to himself and the community!

Many students think they are going to major in one area, but end up in something totally different. In picking a major, ask: Will this major make me a better person, thinker, or lead to an obvious first job? If you cannot easily say “yes” to any of these goals, then don’t waste your time. Ideally, find a major that will attempt all three with hope of success!

Are there more general academic goals that will serve you well for the rest of your life? Academically demand that graduates read well, communicate well, and think well.

Read well. Do most of the classes require reading and is the reading a key part of each class? Piles of reading never discussed are less valuable than reading that is used in classroom discussion. A good college will not just tell you to read a lot but teach you to read well.

Outside of “content” areas, prefer schools that read books to schools that use textbooks.

Communicate well. Knowing is good, but being able to share knowledge makes a great good better. My obvious problems in communication skills are not the fault of the University of Rochester. They not only tried to make me better, they made me better.

Blame me for the mistakes. They are my limitations. But credit my teachers (parents, high school, college, to U of R) for the virtues.

Communication is not limited to writing, but includes the ability to persuade in a business meeting, a blog post, or a tweet.

Make sure your college demands good writing and rhetoric, and teaches both.

Think well. A good college will challenge everything, many do that, but few then help you form a thoughtful worldview. We need an examined life, but the examination is for life and not for the sake of examining.

Ask your college: what will the ideal graduate be? What will she or he do? What will the ideal graduate believe? Ask yourself: “Is this who I want to become?”

Go to colleges that will disciple you. Content will fade from you mind quickly, but a professor who spends time with a student can change a soul forever. A good mentor is worth almost any tuition.

If Socrates is in Austin, then go there. If Jesus is teaching in Dallas, then do not consider anyplace else. Of course, knowing that Socrates and Jesus are Socrates and Jesus before history makes it obvious is almost impossible, but the idea is there: find a mentor.

Assuming no college employs someone that good, find a college that gives you access to their best. Better to go to a smaller school (as an undergraduate) sending their stars out to you than a big school where the stars only teach grad students and mentoring is not a priority.

If peers mentor you, then the schools are not spending your money well. Peer mentoring will happen anyplace, but older men and women mentoring the younger well must happen by plan or it will not happen at all.

Ask for the plan for mentoring and the number of students assigned to each professor. Ask the average number of meetings you will get.

Who is the good mentor? The good mentor is a man or woman who turns toward the beautiful, the good, and the true. This person will turn you in that direction and journey toward them with you.

A mentor will show you beauty. College should refine your taste and introduce the beauty that popular culture will not.

A mentor will help you be good. Good people may not all make good mentors, but no good mentor is a bad person. The usual response is that: nobody is perfect. This is true, but at least a mentor can be better than the student. Of course, this means that that you will have to decide what makes a good man or woman, before going to school.

An eighteen year old receiving mentoring will find the experience pretty overwhelming: you better know ahead that you are comfortable with the preferred outcome. For example, if the college views traditional Christian sexual moralities as “wicked,” and you think Christianity is true, then do you want merely to “survive” school? Can you think of a Biblical example where someone seeks a mentor who is pagan? I might hire a pagan plumber, or learn plumbing from a pagan, but why would I choose to learn morality for a pagan?

A mentor will love truth.

You are paying for access to people. In this era, information is becoming very cheap. Sitting in your bedroom, you can access more books than you could ever read, more film than you could ever watch, and more well formed opinions than you could ever consider.

What we need is community, informed community that will get to know us and help us learn.

Humans are here to love God and love our neighbors. Will the college you are choosing make you better at loving God and your neighbor? Will it even try?

College is expensive, but it should be if it delivers what it promises. If your college does not bother to promise an education and mentoring then you should find a new college. My teachers and mentors placed ideas in my heart and mind that nourish me years later.

Expect a good television show and get a mediocre one and you have lost an hour of entertainment time, but expect an education and miss it and you will have lost a priceless gift and gained debt. Expect and demand this good, because if school does the job well, then it is a mother to all good things that happen to you: dear alma mater.

John Mark Reynolds is Provost of Houston Baptist University.

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  • Bob

    Having an undergraduate Religious Studies degree from a Big 10 university, I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said here. Being in a tiny department at a large university afforded me opportunities to rub elbows with true faculty members (at least in the upper level classes) and I found that quite a few were theists (many of whom were practicing Christians). I would say that my biggest take away was not any one particular thing, but a general basis of how to think critically. They didn’t teach me what to think, but how to think.

    Now I find myself a youth pastor in Northeast Indiana, which seems to be the holy land of small Christian liberal arts/Bible colleges and I find myself counseling juniors and seniors every year about where to go to college. I was blessed to be able to walk away from my undergraduate program without any debt, thanks in part to having a parent as an employee of my university.

    “College is expensive, but it should be if it delivers what it promises.” For the protestant schools within a couple of hours driving of my town, the average cost for tuition plus room and board was $29,500 this year. While many students get scholarship packages, only the best of the best end up with annual tuition below $20,000. While most parents can pay parts of this, some can’t. I have had students take on $45,000 to get a technical writing degree, $120,000 to get a photography degree, $65,000 and $42,000 to get accounting/business degrees, $24,000 for one student to learn that premed was not his thing, and $80,000 for a preseminary studies degree that prepares a student to have to take on $60,000 more debt to get an M. Div which prepares students for a field that is not known for paying well. I understand the benefits of the education from the Christian worldview, but when an 18 year old signs on the dotted line to take on that much debt (not fully realizing what $60,000 will mean when they’re 22-23 years old) shouldn’t employability crack the list of things a student should desire after spending that much money?

    Many of the colleges around here brand and market themselves extremely well to high school kids and their parents, but they do a poor job of helping their graduates get gainfully employed. The coffee shops of Fort Wayne are bustling with Christian college grads who are trying to at least hit the minimums on school bills by making tips as drink jockeys.

    Dr Reynolds, there’s a theoretical side to this discussion where I am totally on board, and I agree with you 100%. There’s another side where I see kids coming out of these Christian schools with degrees that are not as meaningful to employers in the area and these kids are slave to the lender for as much as a decade trying to pay the bills back on the loans. What do I say to the kid that left Calvin with $30,000 of debt when he says, “I could’ve gone to Purdue and gotten the exact same degree, with better faculty members, and done so without any of the debt.” Or the nurse who’s three years out of school still living with her parents who says, “I could’ve gone to Ivy Tech (community college) and done this for a lot less money than $50,000 and I’d still have the letters R.N. after my name.” There seems to be a major dichotomy between the theoretical and practical, and Christian college seems to be a bubble that’s moving toward bursting. I can’t imagine that as Christian colleges get into the depths of $40,000 in the coming years that students will be lining up to sign up to pay that much for the whole product of what they get.

    Sorry this was longer than your blog post, but I really do wonder what folks in the Christian Academy think about this and if they see this dichotomy?

  • Larry Bailey

    We have four kids–two went to state schools to pursue engineering degrees and two went to private Christian schools in the humanities. The latter two did have many scholarships, merit grants and worked part time. The latter two also had Pell grants and some Perkins loans but no commercial loans. The latter ended with ~ $30K in student loans which was significant but not insurmountable and both will have their loans paid off in under 4 years (post graduating with whatever terminal degree they aimed for).

    As parents we can help youngsters draw the line. They read Dave Ramsey’s materials on debt and financial stewardship. As parents we guided them into lower debt paths. We did not co-sign loans. We tried to pay the equivalent in cash assistance to each son or daughter of what it would cost for an in-state school tuition plus room and board. Anything beyond that was on them. Regarding JMR’s post: if a Christian school has something that is qualitatively better for all the reasons JMR describes then the student should expect to pay more than a subsidized in-state equivalent. Fior instance, when you compare the distinctively Christian Great Books-style humanities colleges to the statist/secular alternatives there is quite a contrast. Our decision calculus should incorporate more than a utilitarian view. In this case what JMR is advocating will cost more–but it is worth more. As an analogy: We do sustainable farming and customers ask: why should I pay $4 /lb for pasture raised chicken when I can buy it for $1.40 /lb at Costco? Our flavor is superior, our Omega 3 oils are much higher, much higher CLA, our bacterial contamination is 100 X lower (I could go on…) We tell them it costs more because it is worth way more! Caveat emptor!

    • rvs

      The great books model taught from a Christian worldview is the right way to go. The ridiculousness of Cedarville’s fighting-fundy model of fear-mongering (i.e., “education”) is something else entirely. Many Christian colleges (as many Christian college employees know) have for too long undervalued intellectualism and over-valued… shallowness. And, of course, many Christian colleges have tried to do things on the cheap, hiring people who do not have terminal degrees, offering cheap benefits, buying lab equipment at garage sales, etc., in an effort to save a few thousand dollars. All of this adds up in the long run to under-prepared Christian colleges. Christendom can do better, and many Christian colleges–I believe–are waking up to their own flawed past strategies, which is to say that we are probably at the beginning of an odd revival of sorts for Christian higher education in America. John Mark is helpful in this cause, obviously.

  • BlazerJason

    I’m not sure why you would suggest that compartmentalizing religious life from say, professional or academic life is harmful to the individual or society. I would argue the opposite. I have worked with many devoutly faithful people as a geologist and an engineer and never once has an abstract or religious concept been applied successfully (or at all) to a problem. For example, my co-workers never prayed in place of action when working on a job. Academia is the same way. Unless you plan to make a career in theological pursuits, separating the abstract from the concrete is critical, particularly in understanding natural sciences. Regardless, any college worth the experience will constantly challenge and influence the views of its students. And for this reason colleges (with the exception of very sheltered religious schools) will always be a challenge to religions beliefs.

  • I could agree with your premise concerning student feedback. We have used one for several years. I would appreciate a copy of the one you use at Briarwood to keep improving ours?

  • sylvia waind

    Why can the Mormon university Brigham Young charge only $5K/year for tuition??? Why can’t some of these non denominational colleges fold into one large one like BYU and charge a tuition like that????