The Ol’ College Tri-al

Want to scare a fundamentalist? Tell them you’re sending their child to a state university. As I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, anxiety about college has always been a primary concern of Protestant fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals. Today’s fundamentalists are no different, as I discovered in my recent visit to the Ark Encounter. In this last (I promise) post about the Ark Encounter, I have one final puzzle about the ways the Kentucky creationists depict the dangers of mainstream higher education.

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Watch out! It’s a trap!

First, the history: When evangelist Bob Jones explained his reason for starting his own college in 1926, he liked to tell the story of one woeful Christian family who had scrimped and saved to send their daughter to a fancy university. As Jones told the tale,

At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered. She laughed at God and the old time religion. She broke the hearts of her father and mother. They wept over her. They prayed over her. It availed nothing. At last they chided her. She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Who wouldn’t be scared by that sort of story? Or consider the following example, reprinted throughout the early 1920s by a number of fundamentalist pundits. It was supposedly a letter to the folks at home from a recent college graduate. As he put it,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.

For fundamentalists in the 1920s, the dangers of college weren’t only about debt burdens and sexual assault. College itself threatened to rob children of their faith, leave them “poisoned.”

Like now, fundamentalists back then didn’t just rely on hearsay. They devoured social-science reports of the deleterious religious effects of college. Most famous was James Leuba’s study of student religiosity, published in 1916. Leuba found that most college freshmen (85%) called themselves Christians, but only 55% of recent college graduates did so. The upshot, fundamentalists told themselves, was that the college experience must do something to undermine evangelical faith.

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Those darn college professors…

What was true in 1916 seems just as true a century later. Conservative evangelicals—at least the ones who built Kentucky’s Ark Encounter—are convinced that mainstream higher education is a spiritual minefield.

There’s good reason to think they’re right, at least in part. Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund studied elite academics and found that there did indeed seem to be some elements of anti-evangelical bias among them. Evangelical professors told Ecklund they tended to keep their faith “closeted.” Others reported hearing offhand comments in the faculty lounge deriding “stupid Christianity.”

While elite academics weren’t as uniformly anti-religious as some evangelicals might assume, they did tend to be less religious than the rest of the population. And a small minority told Ecklund that they actively sought to cure students of their religious proclivities. One physicist told her that he viewed religion as a “virus” that he hoped to cure. A social scientist said she started her classes with the following disclaimer:

You don’t have to distance yourself from religion and think about it from an outside perspective, but you do if you want to succeed in this class.  And so if you don’t want to do that, then you need to leave.

If I were an evangelical parent (I’m not), I would hesitate to send my child into an environment where they would be confronted with that sort of hostile, ignorant attitude. And certainly, Ken Ham and the Answers In Genesis crowd are intensely anxious about the goings-on in mainstream higher education. Ham explained his reasoning in a critique of ILYBYGTH a while back, and my trip to the Ark Encounter confirmed it.

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Can college students protect their faith?

Most of the exhibits were fairly predictable, if odd. They depicted the problems with mainstream evolutionary theory and old-earth creationism. They showed the way day-to-day life on the ark could have happened. Not what I’d expect to see in a mainstream science museum, but pretty close to what I expected to find at the Ark Encounter.

On the top floor, though, I was surprised by what I found. Ark Encounter includes a long corridor dedicated to a huge, walk-through comic-book tract. The comic book’s images have been blown up to fill the walls of the corridor, and visitors walk through the story. The plot is familiar—a student wonders about her faith. After some trials, she embraces it.

One of the trials is her smarky college professor. The central characters walk into a lecture hall, where they are told,

The Bible is full of contradictions—written by people with no knowledge of science. The earth isn’t 6,000 years old, and there’s no way the millions of species of animals could fit on Noah’s Ark…

One of the characters is a young-earth creationist and he patiently defends his faith to two friends, but their college experience puts that faith to a severe test.

The exhibit itself was a surprise, but the content wasn’t. The fears and anxieties of fundamentalists in 2018 aren’t too different from those of fundamentalists in 1918. But here’s the thing that’s been bugging me: Why does the Ark Encounter devote so much wall space to this college story, when Ken Ham thinks that the college years are already too late for successful soul-saving?

As Ham wrote in his 2009 book Already Gone, the kids that are leaving fundamentalist faith are making those decisions in their middle-school and high-school years. As Ham puts it,

Many parents will fork out big bucks to send these students to Christian colleges, hoping to protect them in their faith. But the fact is, they’re already gone.

If Ham wants his flock to understand that the college years are too late, why include this huge exhibit on the dangers of college at the Ark Encounter?

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Welcome to 2018! You might think the last week of the year would be quiet, but you’d be wrong. Here are a couple of the ILYBYGTH-style stories that jumped out at us over the past week:

Issue in review: Has Trumpism killed evangelicalism?

Conservatives and the higher education “scapegoat,” by Catherine Rampell at WaPo.

The thing white professors won’t talk about, by Robert Cherry at RCEd.

Want to avoid a “death of despair?” Go to college. At CHE, research about the link between higher education and better health.Bart reading bible

Jeffrey Salkin admires LDS (Mormons). But he wants them to stop baptizing dead Jewish people, at RNS.

Why one evangelical leader left Trump’s evangelical council. AR Bernard explains his departure to Samantha Bee: “Better think carefully what you are given in exchange for your life, your reputation.”

What’s wrong with the pseudo-intellectual Right? Paul Gottfried tees off on D’Souza, Prager, and Goldberg at AC. Gottfried’s conclusion:

  • “there is . . . a plague of genuinely ridiculous writings on historical subjects coming from conservative media celebrities that surpass in their arrogant stupidity almost anything I’ve encountered in professional journals. As for people who yap about the ideologically tainted work that originates in our universities, one might hope they’d be somewhat better than those they declaim against. That’s not always the case.”

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Those of us who live our lives in semesters are feeling a dizzying sense of high-speed hoopla as we take the final plunge toward the end of the semester. In all the huff and stuff, here are some ILYBYGTH-related news stories you might have missed:

Why do conservatives hate higher education? At The Atlantic, Jason Blakely offers an explanation.

No more safe spaces—except for conservatives. House higher-ed bill throws some brontosaurus-sized bones to campus conservatives, as reported by Politico.

The conservative National Association of Scholars claims another win. AP European History changes its standards in response to NAS criticism. HT: DR

Selling the naming rights to your local school—Peter Greene objects.Bart reading bible

Is Silicon Valley taking over classrooms? Larry Cuban says yes and no.

The latest crisis in public education: Good News. The graduation rate is at an all-time high.

It’s all Greek to me: At The Atlantic, two opposing ancient concepts of free speech.

Moore-o-mania:

At CHE: Can Sexual Predators Be Good Scholars?

When Did Conservatives Get so Angry at Higher Ed?

When I saw the headline, my nerd spidey-sense tingled. I was excited to read about the history of conservative anti-college feelings. But when I read the whole article, I was struck once again by the half-baked nature of the claim. Once again, a smart, well-informed pundit who claims to be examining culture-war history stops half-way. When will we start looking beyond the 1960s?

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An earlier generation also worried…

Here’s the dilemma: at The Atlantic, Jason Blakely recently promised to explain the history of recent GOP ire against higher education. Looking at the current proposed tax plan, for example, it seems as if some members of Congress are out to punish elite universities.

Blakely argues that this conservative resentment of higher education has historical roots. In his analysis, he makes some vital points. Most powerfully, he notices that conservatives seem to mistake a very small segment of higher education for the higher-educational landscape as a whole. As he wisely puts it,

conservative anxiety is best expressed as being about a small set of marquee positions of honor and prestige in the liberal arts that happen to be largely staffed at present by those whose political commitments lean left.

That’s a vital point that is too often ignored. “College” as a whole is not particularly leftish…or even particularly anything. The crazy-quilt patchwork of colleges, universities, and other post-secondary institutions is wildly disparate. It is an absolutely vital notion that people just don’t seem to want to notice. Kudos to Blakely for emphasizing it. But when he proposes to analyze the history of this conservative anger toward elite universities, he puzzlingly only scratches the historical surface. After a nod to the “deep and complex historical roots” of anti-intellectualism in American culture, he argues that

the trope of portraying American universities as a threat to society emerged with particular intensity in the 1970s and ‘80s.

He looks at the work of neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom regarding “what they saw as the moral laxity and corrosiveness of the 1960s counterculture.”

Fair enough. And interesting, as far as it goes. But what Blakely and other writers miss is the longer relevant history of this specific trend in culture-war thinking.

As I argue in my book about educational conservatism, if we hope to make any sense of today’s conservative anger at elite higher ed, we can’t start with the 1970s. We need to begin in the 1920s, when conservative intellectuals had their first experience of exile, when the tropes exploited so powerfully by Kristol and Bloom were first developed.

It was not in the 1970s, but in the 1920s that conservatives developed their deep abiding anxiety about trends in elite higher education. Consider a couple of examples.

In the early 1920s, for example, anti-evolution celebrity William Jennings Bryan railed against trends in American higher education. In one public dispute with University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge, for example, Bryan offered the following memorable proposal. If universities continued to promote amoral ideas such as human evolution, Bryan suggested, they needed to post the following notice:

Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle.

Elite schools, Bryan warned, had begun actively to teach “moral laxity and corrosiveness.” Universities needed to warn parents that they no longer taught students right from wrong. This sense of conservative outrage at higher-educational trends was a driving force behind the culture wars of the 1920s.

It wasn’t only Bryan and it wasn’t only evolution. Since the 1920s, conservative intellectuals have voiced “with particular intensity” their sense that elite universities had gone off the moral rails. Consider the case made by some patriotic conservatives in the 1930s and 1940s against the anti-American direction of the elite higher-educational establishment.

In 1938, for instance, Daniel Doherty of the American Legion denounced elite institutions as mere “propagandists.” Universities such as Columbia had taken to “attacking the existing order and [to] disparagement of old and substantial values.”

These intense antagonistic feelings toward elite universities were widely shared among conservative thinkers in the 1930s. Bertie Forbes, for example, syndicated columnist and founder of Forbes magazine, warned that elite schools were “generally regarded as infested” with subversive and anti-moral professors.

When we talk about our culture-war history, we can’t short out these voices from the 1920s and the 1930s.

Why not? If you are purporting to explain the history of an idea, you can’t only focus on the most recent articulation. It implies that these questions began to rankle only in the past fifty years, instead of slow-cooking for about a century now. The radicalism of the 1960s, and the reaction of the 1970s, were not new. They did not create new terms of culture-war angst, but rather only perpetuated existing themes.

This is not only a nerdy quibble but a fundamental part of culture-war politics. Think of it this way: When Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom made their arguments in the 1970s—the ones Blakely thinks inaugurated conservative anger at elite universities—they did not need to convince their conservative audiences of their central point. Conservatives had a vague but powerful sense that elite intellectual institutions had long since turned against truth, goodness, and beauty. Convincing someone of something they already believe to be true is a much easier task.

I don’t mean to single Blakely out. He’s not the only writer to woefully misrepresent America’s culture-war history. Plus, I’m not saying that historians can’t cut off their arguments at some reasonable point. We don’t all need to always write about everything. I get that. In a case like this, however, ignoring the vital and intensely relevant precursors to the 1970s history is not okay. We end up with a misleading notion of the genealogy of conservative outrage. We end up thinking we understand something we haven’t really even begun to understand.

A Trump Victory We Didn’t Expect

Maybe not out of left field, specifically, but out of a field somewhere: Trump’s shocking electoral victory and surprising pockets of continuing popularity have left wonks of all sorts scratching their heads. Here at ILYBYGTH, we’re agog to see some odd recent poll results that show yet another surprising result of Trumpism.

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Take my tuition dollars!

The poll we’re talking about would seem to be worlds removed from Trumpism and its unpredictable path. But the Inside Higher Education/Gallup survey of college admissions officials has come up with some intriguing political results.

Some are predictable. Many schools these days are struggling to attract students. Only 34% of the schools surveyed met their enrollment goals this year, down from the last two years. That hits schools hard, right in the pocketbook. Without tuition dollars, most schools would have to pull a Sweet Briar, and few institutions have the wealthy alumni base to hope for a last-minute SB rescue.

One of the most attractive type of student, from a financial perspective, has long been international students. They often pay full tuition. At public state schools, they often pay even more than out-of-state students.

Trump’s anti-immigrant bluster has made it harder for American schools to attract these types of students. Eighty-six percent of admissions officers thought “the statements and policies of President Trump make it more difficult to recruit international students.”

That’s not surprising.

What is a Trump shocker, to us at least, is a different consensus among the admissions bureaucrats. Trump’s victory, many agreed, served as proof that they have been looking in the wrong directions for students. As the IHE report put it,

In the months following the election and the inauguration of President Trump, many educators have been discussing whether the results suggest that higher education is out of touch with the public, and how the image of higher education (fair or not) impacts colleges and their admissions strategies. At a gathering of private college counselors in June, many said that they were seeing an increase in parents vetoing their children’s college choices over the perceived political orientation of institutions, with one counselor saying, “Brown is completely off the table.”

As a result, many schools have begun a new sort of recruitment. In addition to their traditions of recruiting athletes, high-flying nerds, and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, many schools want to start reaching out to rural, white, and—get this—conservative students.

Admissions Directors Agreeing With Statements on Higher Education, Postelection

Statement Public Private Nonprofit
Higher education needs to redouble its efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented minority groups. 86% 66%
The election outcome suggests Americans are less committed than they were in the past to increasing the number of racial and ethnic minority students who attend college. 44% 35%
The election outcome indicates that colleges — especially elite colleges — should recruit more students from rural areas. 42% 32%
The election outcome indicates that colleges — especially elite colleges — should recruit more low-income white students. 32% 24%
Colleges with overwhelmingly liberal student bodies should increase recruiting efforts, including affirmative action, for conservative students. 16% 12%

In other words, Trump’s victory has convinced some admissions officials—like some ILYBYGTH editors—that they just don’t “get” America. They want to include more students who might be likely to support Trump. They want to expand their notion of “diversity” to include conservative, rural, white students.

Colleges That Are Stepping Up Recruitment of Certain Groups in Wake of Election

  Public Private
Rural students 52% 28%
Low-income white students 41% 22%
Conservative students 9% 8%

 

We can’t say we haven’t wondered about this sort of thing. For a while now, we at ILYBYGTH have been worried about higher-education’s lack of knowledge and interest in conservative students. But we CAN say it is something we didn’t predict, one more example of the ways the Trump earthquake has changed the political landscape.

The Proof’s in the Pudding

Well, I guess there ain’t no stopping it now. I’ve just received the proof pages for my upcoming book about the history of evangelical higher education. Fundy U proof title page

It is a very exciting moment for any nerd to see the way the book will actually look in print.

And now, the last stage of my work begins. I’ll go over these proofs with a fine-tooth comb, looking for any typos or other errors. It’s too late at this stage for me to make any major changes in the content, but I still want to be sure there are no goofs in the printing. fundy u proof TOC

I’ll also use this time to put together an index. I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy this process. It’s a ton of painstaking work, to be sure, but I like putting together a topical list of the book’s main ideas, sorted out by sub-headings.

When will all this come together as a final book? Once I send in the final proofs and the index, the folks at OUP will do their magic and get the book out by early 2018. I’ll keep you posted!

College Has Gone to the Dogs

Who hates college? Nobody, really. But if you squinted your eyes a little when you read the recent Pew poll results, you might be fooled into thinking conservatives had suddenly turned against higher education.PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_party

Here’s what we know: Since 2010, Pew has surveyed American adults about their feelings toward major institutions. In just the last few years, more and more respondents who identify as Republican or Republican-ish say that higher education is having a negative overall effect on American society. In 2010, only a third of Republicans thought so. Today, it is up to 58%.

What’s going on? As always, Pew wisely doesn’t jump to hasty conclusions. My guess is that many of us chatterers will rush to say that conservatives in general are anti-intellectual, or that conservatives think college is a waste of time. Or, given the sudden shift in numbers, maybe that conservatives are dismayed by the snowflake protests that seem to be sweeping American campuses.

Maybe, but I think there’s more to it.

First of all, obviously, we can’t equate “conservative” with “Republican.” True enough, these days most conservatives’ votes have been captured by the GOP. Not all, though. And certainly not all Republicans are conservatives.pp second graph

I think there’s also something more important going on. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’ve been up to my eyeballs for the past few years in research about American higher education. The group of conservative dissenting college founders I’m studying was often accused of being anti-intellectual and anti-college. They were neither.

As I’m arguing in my upcoming book, Protestant fundamentalists cared a lot about ideas and about college. They loved college. But if you only listened to their rhetoric, it would be easy to assume too quickly that they were somehow opposed to higher education.

Consider, for example, one apocryphal story that made the rounds among 1920s fundamentalist pundits. It was supposed to be a letter home from an evangelical college grad. As he supposedly told his mother,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.  I hope you will warn the young men of the impending danger just ahead of them.

For fundamentalists in the 1920s, college was a terrible spiritual danger. But that didn’t mean they were against college. Rather, they were fervently against college done wrong. They were against the trends that they correctly perceived to be driving mainstream trends in higher ed.

What did they do? They didn’t stop sending their kids to college. Rather, they founded their own institutions, reliably fundamentalist colleges such as Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University) and Bryan University (now Bryan College). They also flocked to existing reliably fundamentalist institutions such as Wheaton College and the Moody Bible Institute.

My hunch is that today’s Pew respondents are similar. When they tell pollsters they don’t trust college or “the media,” it doesn’t mean they don’t like higher education or newspapers. Rather, it means they don’t trust the smarmy elites that they think run such institutions.

Here’s what I wish I could do: Have the Pewsters add some follow-up questions. When people say they don’t trust colleges, ask them if they want their kids to go to college anyway. And then ask them what would restore their trust in higher education.

Here’s what I think people would say: Even if they don’t trust college, they want their children to attend. But they would prefer to find a school that reflected their own values, instead of the radical leftism that many people think dominates colleges today.

Is Jerry Falwell an Idiot? Part Deux

If you bet for VHS against Betamax and won a billion dollars, what would you do with your loot? If you’re Jerry Falwell Jr., second-generation president of Liberty University in Virginia, you would invest the money in Betamax. Is he an idiot? Or is he a savvy reader of higher-ed tea leaves?

Here’s why we ask: John Fea directs our attention this morning to another mind-boggling story from Lynchburg. Falwell’s Liberty has guaranteed a whopping $1.32 million to Old Dominion for an early-season football game, according to local news reports.

liberty football

Flame out?

Liberty University has that kind of money to throw around. Over the past fifteen years, the school has reaped obscene profits from its online platform. In addition to splashing out for its sports programs, Liberty has poured money into brick-and-mortar campus amenities.

As I noted after the first research trip to Liberty for my new book, that sort of investment seems either stupid or prophetic. If the old-fashioned model of higher education is dead, then why put so much money into it? Why invest in sports and campus gyms if modern higher ed means online ed?

Maybe Falwell is right. Maybe people still want a campus. Maybe they still want eccentric professors. Maybe they want huge sports stadiums. When people think “college,” maybe they want all those things.

If so, Falwell is investing wisely; building his school into a new higher-ed powerhouse.

Or maybe he’s just stuck in a twentieth-century rut. Maybe he’s still insecure about the reputation of fundamentalist colleges and he’s willing to spend whatever it takes to rub his success in the face of Notre Dame and Harvard.

Desperate Times at Bryan College

They might seem like two totally separate things. First, Bryan College awards an honorary doctorate to a young-earth creationist pundit. Second, Bryan’s president conducts some financial hocus-pocus to keep the school officially in the black. They might seem separate, but they are both symptoms of the same deep malaise that plagues Bryan. Moreover, they are irruptions of the perennial life-or-death tension that has always dictated policy at all conservative evangelical schools.

Here’s what we know: Last week, Bryan College awarded an honorary doctorate to young-earth impresario Ken Ham. Bryan President Stephen Livesay praised Ham, saying,

In a day when most of the culture and, sadly, many Christians proclaim a naturalistic worldview, Ken Ham boldly and persuasively argues for a biblical understanding of “In the beginning God.”

At the same time, yet another trustee resigned from Bryan’s board. Wayne Cropp, one of the few trustees who remained after the Night of the Long Knives in 2014, finally had enough. He claimed that President Livesay had sneakily made some real estate transfers to make it look as if Bryan College were in better financial shape than it really is.

Ken Ham hooded at Bryan

I love you but you’re going to boost enrollments…

Now, your humble editor has absolutely no insider knowledge about these goings-on. But based on the research for my current book about the history of evangelical higher education, I can say with confidence that these two events are likely part of the same desperate survival strategy.

In a nutshell, President Livesay is doing whatever it takes to keep Bryan College alive. Like many small colleges in the United States, Bryan is always teetering on the brink of financial collapse. At Sweet Briar, remember, wealthy alumni had to pony up extra just to keep the lights on. Unlike many small colleges, however, Livesay has an extra trump card he can play. And he’s been playing it for years.

In order to attract students with their life-sustaining tuition dollars, Livesay—like leaders at all evangelical colleges—can plant a flag for fundamentalism and young-earth creationism. In Bryan’s case, the school has taken drastic steps to purge any whiff of creationism that doesn’t meet the strict young-earth standards of Ken Ham.

As I discovered in my recent research, the pattern is as old as fundamentalist higher education itself. For example, Wheaton College in Illinois experienced a drastic rise in enrollments when it joined the fundamentalist crusade in the 1920s. Before it became the “Fundamentalist Harvard,” a majority of Wheaton’s students came from Illinois. After it planted a flag for fundamentalist higher education, a full three-quarters of its students came from outside the state. And attendance boomed. Between 1916 and 1928, the college grew by over four hundred percent in terms of student attendance.

It can be a risky game, though. Relying on a reputation as a staunchly fundamentalist or young-earth creationist school can bite schools in the behind. In the 1960s, when Wheaton’s leaders wanted to shake off some of the intellectual baggage of the fundamentalist movement, their enrollment numbers took a huge hit.

In 1964, a total of 8,528 potential Wheaton students had asked for admissions information. Only three years later, that number plunged to only 6,403. Why? Admissions Director Charles Schoenherr had an idea. In a memo to President Hudson Armerding, Schoenherr asked plaintively, “To what extent have rumors about Wheaton going ‘liberal’ hurt?”

Like Bryan, Wheaton relies on reputation to keep tuition dollars coming in. And like Bryan, Wheaton has long relied on honorary doctorates to shore up that reputation. Between 1920 and 1965, Wheaton gave out 180 honorary doctorates.

And the top leadership at Wheaton, just like at Bryan, did not hesitate to use those doctorates to reassure anxious fundamentalist parents. In 1962, then-President V. Raymond Edman wrote to one distressed parent. The parent had heard rumors that Wheaton no longer respected its fundamentalist roots. She had heard that the school had embraced evolution. Was it true? As she put it, “What grieves me most is that our daughter may lose her faith at Wheaton. Is this possible?”

Not in the slightest, President Edman assured her. How could she know for sure? Because prominent creationist Harry Rimmer held an honorary doctorate. Furthermore, Edman told her, the entire faculty at Wheaton were “convinced fundamentalists.”

If you didn’t have a calendar handy, you could simply swap out some names and the story could be from Dayton, Tennessee. Bryan President Stephen Livesay is desperate for dollars. So he gives Ken Ham a hug and a doctorate. At the same time, he rams through an iffy land deal that balances the books, sort of.

The names have changed, but the game is the same. Bryan College is desperate. Like a lot of small colleges, it is running on a financial knife edge. Unlike many schools, though, Bryan has a chance to appeal to a cultural niche market. If Livesay can convince young-earthers that his school is true to their ideas about science and faith, he might just attract enough tuition-paying students to keep Bryan alive. Until then, he’ll have to cook some real-estate books to pump a few more breaths into his campus.

HT: KT

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.