Does It Matter Where Your Kid Goes to College?


That’s one message we might take away from Kevin Carey’s recent piece in the New York Times. He argues that the vast gulf between the “best” universities and the rest is nothing but an illusion. That certainly fits with my experience in the past twenty years as a graduate student and professor. But is it also true about the gulf between mainstream colleges and dissenting religious ones?

Carey insists, in a nutshell, that students will do just as well whether they go to Harvard or Podunk U. Or, to be more precise, Carey argues that the differences between elite schools and the rest are more about marketing than about actual educational impact. doesn't!

…it doesn’t!

To back up his claims, Carey relies on the 2005 edition of a study by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini. There are some differences between schools, of course. As Carey puts it,

But these findings are overwhelmed in both size and degree by the many instances in which researchers trying to detect differences between colleges found nothing.

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

As the SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in work on my new book about conservative evangelical Protestant higher education. These schools exist because most people think it matters a great deal where kids go to college. Not only in terms of making connections and building a career, but in terms of learning good values and building a life as a certain sort of Christian.

As evangelist Bob Jones Sr. explained in 1928, he founded his college in order to help parents relax. “The fathers and mothers who place their sons and daughters in our institution,” Jones promised,

can go to sleep at night with no haunting fear that some skeptical teacher will steal the faith of their precious children. Your son and daughter can get in the Bob Jones College everything that they can get in any school of Liberal Arts.

These days, too, conservative religious leaders spend a good deal of time and effort helping parents find the right schools for their kids. As I argued a while back, creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis offers lists of “safe” schools, schools that reliably teach young-earth creationism and ONLY young-earth creationism.

Can college make a difference?

Can college make a difference?

Kevin Carey’s recent look at the research prompts some important questions.

  • If the academic and professional difference between mainstream schools is not as great as we all think, is the difference between mainstream schools and religious schools also not as great as we think?
  • Might it be possible for conservative parents to relax about where their kids go to school, and instead focus on helping their kids make the most out of whatever school they DO attend?
  • Do religious students fare well at secular/pluralist schools?
Leave a comment


  1. Interesting questions and observations. I look forward to learning the answers when your book comes out. My gut reaction is that the difference in the education from private to secular schools is probably not significantly different overall but that there will be particular disciplines or sub-disciplinary areas where some differences may be discernible. The most obvious would be a geology students who gets a BS in geology from Cedarville college vs a secular school. For the most part what you get at these small insular schools are a mixture of some really good professors that are very knowledgeable and are effective communicators and believe in teaching in that environment and some faculty that are not very well prepared in their field but the school must just hire who they can that hold to their mission statement. The sciences suffer because it is hard to find Ph.Ds with real research experience who can also hold to the statement of faith.

    I have talked with quite a few grads of Cedarville and a other midwestern conservative schools that have either left or come to Akron for graduate school. Mostly I find they are better prepared in terms of their basic knowledge of biology. They have better study skills and and are ready to learn. They often have profound misunderstandings of science but because they have been taught to think in other fields that are deemed less controversial they are in a position to re-evaluate their prior conviction which aren’t so much convictions as they are just all they know.

  2. Agellius

     /  July 27, 2015

    It definitely made a difference in my kids’ lives when they switched from a standard diocesan Catholic school to a Catholic “Benedict Option” school; that is, a school that made a big deal out of its Catholic identity and consciously strove to be at odds with secular culture.

    My kids probably would have done fine at their former school, or at a public school – but then again, it’s hard to be sure. My older son in particular started being a good student I believe around the 6th grade, and it was a result of his circle of friends suddenly starting to try to outdo each other on their grades; in other words, positive peer pressure. Now, if he had gone to a public school and fallen in with a different circle of friends, would he have developed into the excellent student that he became? My wife and I may have been able to push him into excelling, but it was nice to have him decide to start doing it on his own.

    I think a similar dynamic arises with regard to “faith formation”: The BO school gave our sons a group of peers who all came from seriously devout Catholic families, and we noticed the change in him within the first year of attending this school. Religion became something he did on his own initiative, and not something we had to push him into doing.

    Would he have had this same experience if he had attended a public high school? Highly unlikely. We always did our best to impart the faith to him, trying not to cram it down his throat but make it attractive enough that he would embrace it on his own and therefore have genuine faith and not just go through the motions to please us. But I think kids tend to take their own family backgrounds for granted and not see what’s special or particularly good about them or their parents or their parents’ opinions. And when religion interferes with sleeping in and watching whatever you want on TV, it can seem like a chore or a burden, and there might be a temptation to dump it as soon as the chance arises. But when they saw other families, and a whole big community of families, of really nice, attractive, smart people, all saying the same things that their parents had been trying to tell them for years, suddenly it’s a thing that can be looked at from another perspective and appreciated and embraced for its own sake.

    Again I’m quite sure this could not have happened if they had gone to public schools. So, I’m convinced that environment and community make a big difference in a kid’s life; not necessarily in terms of how well they will do in their secular studies and careers, but at least in terms of passing on the values that parents consider important.

    • Didn’t your son also attend a conservative Catholic college? If you had to pick only ONE stage of school to have a “Benedict-Option” school, which would it be? College? High school? Elementary?

      • Agellius

         /  July 27, 2015

        In our case, high school. The contrast between the diocesan elementary and middle school and the BO high school gave him an appreciation for the BO school, which he otherwise might have taken for granted. And I think this gave him a good grounding such that his faith would have survived a secular college. However, if a kid had attended diocesan or public schools through high school, then it might be important for him to attend a BO college, just to get the whole experience of living in a devout Catholic community. As I said before, the faith is not just a set of facts but a way of life, and seeing it lived in community is the best way of coming to appreciate what it has to offer.

  3. It would be better if every college focused on common problems, like the fact that nearly half of their students show no significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing during their first two years of college, and that figure doesn’t improve much (36%) after four years. (Academically Adrift and similar reports about declining study time, etc.)

    The academic and professional outcomes are probably similar in mediocrity for religious students whether they go to a religious school or not. However, it is not primarily the academic and professional outcomes that these students, their parents, and the schools claim to value first and foremost. It would be nice if they did, and if non-religious students, parents, and schools did too.

    Your second question was written in a very patronizing way. More and more “conservative” (or do you mean “religious?”) parents appear to be “relaxing” if that is what it takes for them to “allow” their college age children to go to non-religious colleges and universities. You seem to be assuming it is uptight and controlling parents who determine how this decision is made. Is that warranted? And what percentage of religious Americans have gone to religious colleges — specifically among the conservative Protestant population — over the years? I wonder if it has not always been a minority.

    Your third question seems to equate “secular” with “pluralist” as a descriptor of conservative religious schools. That’s not warranted in many cases unless the lack of non-Christians in the student body and faculty negates all other diversity. The largest CCCU schools do admit and hire non-Christians; they have an “affiliate” status distinct from regular members who are required to restrict hiring to Christians. I’m sure most religious students fare well at secular/pluralist schools in terms of academic and professional outcomes, but again that is not the primary outcome this demographic is concerned with.

    You can probably get lots of good, recent data on outcomes from North American K-12 schools here: There are conclusions being drawn there that Christian, especially Protestant private schools are having uniquely good outcomes if propagating conservative and religious ideals regarded as a good thing. Their 2014 survey claims Evangelical Protestant students weigh vocational calling heavily and tend towards human service careers such as social work, health care, and education.


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