Which Christian College Should My Kid Attend?

Looking for help picking an evangelical college? I’ll save you some time: I can’t help. And the worse news is that no one is sure how to categorize them. However, there are some guides out there.

I’ve been receiving inquiries lately from concerned parents. They’ve been looking for good evangelical colleges for their kids and they’ve stumbled across this humble blog. So they’ve asked me for help picking the “right” evangelical school.

Now, it’s true we talk a lot in these pages about evangelical higher education. My book about the twentieth-century history of such schools is almost finished. But I’m sorry to say I can’t offer any tips or strategies about how to pick the right evangelical college.

I wish I could help. I’ve got a kid in high school and I’m wondering about where she’ll go to college and how we’ll pay for it. I’m sure she won’t be going to an evangelical school of any sort, but besides that, I’m at a total loss. For evangelical Protestants, this tricky decision is made more difficult by the wide array of evangelical schools out there. There’s a wide variety in evangelical colleges and there always has been.

Evangelical families have to consider questions of location, price, academic prestige, size, and etc., just like the rest of us. But if they’re planning to attend an evangelical college—or as they tend to call themselves, a “Christian college”—they have to consider other factors as well. Is School X or Y too liberal? Too conservative? Too dispensationalist? Too Calvinist? Is it too friendly to same-sex partnerships? Too unfriendly? Too obsessed with young-earth creationism? Not obsessed enough? Etc.!

I’m not jealous. It can be exhausting and expensive to get the real scoop about any campus. They all tell us they are the best in everything and it can take some digging to find out what life is really like for their students. This is why the nebulous concept of “prestige” weighs so heavily in these decisions.

And I’ve got some bad news. Just like other sorts of college rankings, even the most well-informed experts can’t agree on how to categorize Christian colleges.

Among historians, at least, there has always been some dispute about whether different schools should be considered “fundamentalist” or “new-evangelical.”

Writing from the campus of Bob Jones University back in 1973, for example, historian George Dollar tried to list different sorts of evangelical schools: “militant Fundamentalist” ones, “moderate” ones, and the “modified or new-evangelical group.” He warned, however, that his lists had some problems. Even new-evangelical schools had some “hard-line Fundamentalists who take good stands individually.”

The View from Greenville: George Dollar’s Categorization of Evangelical Colleges (1973)
Militant Fundamentalist Moderate New-Evangelical
Bob Jones Philadelphia College of the Bible (now Cairn University) Barrington College (now part of Gordon College)
Midwestern Baptist Bible College Cedarville University Fuller Seminary
Baptist Bible College in PA (Now Summit University) Biola Wheaton College
Calvary College in Kentucky Westminster Seminary Gordon College
Clearwater Christian College in Florida Tennessee Temple University (now defunct) Houghton College
Faith Theological Seminary Moody Bible Institute King’s College
Central Baptist Seminary in Minnesota John Brown University Oral Roberts University

A decade later, another evangelical historian tried to offer a similar guide. William Ringenberg warned that there was no simple and definitive way to classify schools. The “fundamentalist” side of the family could be identified generally by their emphasis on revivalism, authoritarian leadership, focus on religious purity over academic freedom, and political conservatism. What evangelical schools counted as “fundamentalist” to Ringenberg? Liberty, Bob Jones, Baptist Bible of Missouri, and the now-defunct Tennessee Temple schools.

Around the same time, leading evangelical historian Timothy Smith offered another guide. For Smith, the list of “independent fundamentalist” schools included Biola, Grace College in Indiana, Northwestern College in Minnesota, Bob Jones, and Liberty.

Clearly, even the best-informed experts haven’t agreed on what counted as a “fundamentalist” school. How are the rest of us supposed to know what to think?

Plus, it’s been a while since then. Some of the schools have folded, others have combined, and certainly some have changed their focus. King’s College, for example, moved to the Big City and began to emphasize culture-war involvement. New schools, too, such as Patrick Henry College, offer a new kind of conservative evangelical higher education.

But the dilemma for evangelical families remains. Since there is such a wide spectrum among the expansive evangelical family, how can students and parents know if any particular school matches their own beliefs and attitudes?

Here’s the good news: There are guides out there to help. The expansive Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, for example, has a school guide for families to consider. Christianity Today also publishes a Christian-college guide. If families are committed to young-earth creationism, they can turn to YEC-specific guides like the one at Answers In Genesis.

Just as in the world of non-evangelical higher education, though, our best bet is to talk to people we know and trust. Visit campuses. Ask hard questions. Talk to alumni. Talk to students and faculty.

And then relax. Our kids are not just silly putty, vulnerable to any wacky idea or dangerous trend that might drift across their phone screens. All colleges, whatever their faith background or academic atmosphere, offer a lot of opportunity to their students.

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2 Comments

  1. What do you make of the old confessionally protestant colleges that are not in the CCCU or commonly identified by Evangelicals as “evangelical,” yet they do assert a religious identity and tradition without it being a high wall or litmus test? They don’t do adjectival “Christian college” talk much or at all but are clearly distinct from the thoroughly post-religious comparables, like Oberlin. I’m thinking especially about the Lutheran colleges that are highly concentrated in the upper midwest, particularly the Scandinavian ones that reflect the continuing legacy of a social-democratic evangelical pietism. Anabaptists too can fit into this description as well, but they have taken a more separatist-dualist stance rather than a contented embrace of a liberal modernity where religion and secularity are not polarized or even recognized as antagonists. I’m thinking of colleges like Luther (maybe there are a few othres?) where choir is bigger than football.

    The guides you mentioned seem pretty outdated, as the entire spectrum of conservative protestantism has shifted very far to the right. That has led to some reactions (and expulsions of some institutions from the fold) and no doubt more are coming, so people looking for more progressive schools should seek out the defectors and dissidents, and look where they have been welcomed. Those looking for reactionary enclaves are in luck. If intellectual prophylaxis and abstinence-oriented matchmaking are what you are looking for in loco parentis, it is a buyer’s market.

    Attempts to differentiate fundamentalists from evangelicals, even in the 1970s, are superficial and mostly tonal. Even the most pacified and “get-along” seeming evangelical institutions tend to be part of the culture wars with political and ideological commitments that have nothing essentially or historically to do with Christian orthodoxy, but they insist otherwise.

    I would say the unifying feature of all religious institutions that are fundamentalist and reactionary at their core (no matter what they say and how nice they seem) is their classical antimodernism and retention of an untheorized and not very coherent late medieval-metaphysical worldview. Their literature and casual speech will describe sin as a virus-like substance, God and spiritual beings as existents of the same type as trees and dogs (they just happen to be invisible), miracles as true supernatural suspensions of natural laws. In the more extreme cases, demons are a big preoccupation, and there is a great chain of being wherein God’s binary gendered creatures are sorted into hierarchies of authority with God and his (white) male patriarchs at the top.

    If you make it clear you are not a fundy, the more educated and progressive seeming members of these communities will signal that they do not take these things literally and see many problems with them, but (shrug) what can you do but keep your head down? They will want to sell you on the idea that they are somehow maintaining a mainstream and thoughtful perspective amid hostile pressures from above and below. Ask those faculty how often they and their colleagues have been assailed by parents and others offended by their course materials or public statements. Ask if their administration has had their backs. Ask what retention has been for new faculty over the past 5-10 years.

    A quick litmus test for fundamentalism is to look at how literate and engaged an institution and its faculties are with the classic evangelical bugaboos — their so-called four horsemen of moderntiy: Darwin, Marx, Nietszche and Freud. Lean in on their best humanities folks and ask, “So what do you think of Heidegger” or “What do you make of Husserl’s framing of the western ‘Krisis,’ and what have been the best responses to it, Christian or otherwise, in your view?” Maybe “Habermas or Ratzinger?” gets right down to it. Go straight to the politics of the day.

    In most cases you’ll probably get blank stares or mumbling unless you catch a live one alone. Scratch the surfaces and you will find a lot of faculty who live in fear and/or have no serious engagement with the mainstream, even the mainstream dialogues that are most relevant and most engaging of faith/reason issues. If they are working from warmed over “Christian worldview” materials, just walk away.

    Primary sources of financial support also reveal the ideological center of gravity and probably future of most institutions.

    Reply
  2. If I had been asked that question, say 5 years ago, I would have suggested Wheaton College. But, seeing their recent antics, I’m not so sure about that any more.

    The honest truth is that most Christian students will do quite well at a secular college. For example, there’s actually a lot of support for Christians at Yale. Yes, they may come across a public lecture that attacks Christianity. But they are unlikely to see that kind of attack in the classroom.

    If there’s a budgeting issue, try a good state university.

    Reply

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