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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The Bible in America: Thunderbolt, Part II: Schempp

If we listen to the voices of Fundamentalist America, we might conclude that public schools in America are terrible places to be.  Twenty years ago, John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research warned that public schools had become “aggressively anti-Christian.”  The problems, Morris declared, went beyond the obvious:

Open drug sales and use, ethnic gang wars, and student/teacher violence are easily recognized problems, but how about the more subtle attempts at “values clarification,” or the encouragement of experimentation in “sex education” classes, or the inclusion of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, or easy access to abortions through school clinics.

Other conservative Christian activists agree.  Thirty years ago, Jerry Combee wrote,

the public schools have grown into jungles where, of no surprise to Christian educators, the old Satanic nature ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’ (I Peter 5:8).  Students do well to stay alive, much less learn.

More recently, activists involved in the Exodus Mandate have warned that public schools “are no more reformable than Soviet collective farms. . . . Conservative school reformers are a lot like Civil War reenactors who specialize in Pickett’s Charge.  They never take the high ground; they never really win.”

This staggering decline in the quality of public schools began, many conservatives insist, when the US Supreme Court kicked God out of schools in 1962 and 1963.  In 1962, as we’ve seen, the court decreed that states could not impose a non-sectarian prayer in public schools.  More devastating to many conservative Christians, in 1963 the court ruled in the decision Abington Township School District v. Schempp that even Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer had no legitimate place in those schools.

Despite what many outsiders might think, the world of conservative evangelical Protestantism in America is truly kaleidoscopic, to borrow the phrase of religious historian Timothy L. Smith.  Different schools of thought among Bible believers disagree vehemently on questions of politics, culture, and theology.  Ask twenty “fundamentalists” what the Bible means and you’ll get at least twenty different answers.  Yet when it came to the Schempp decision, a variety of voices from around this diverse world all agreed.  This decision meant not only that God had been kicked out of public schools, but that Christianity itself had been kicked out of American public life.

For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Schempp decision, separatist Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire still hoped that concerted political action might overturn it.  McIntire helped organize “Project America” to press politicians to adopt a Constitutional amendment in favor of prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  At first, McIntire repeatedly stressed his feeling that huge majorities of Americans would support such an amendment.  After a bitter political fight, however, McIntire acknowledged that it was hopeless.  Writers in McIntire’s Christian Beacon began to emphasize the notion that their beliefs made them a beleaguered minority in American life.  In 1965 one writer warned that America was “moving farther and farther from its Christian heritage.”  Another predicted that soon mainstream Americans would resort to “repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution . . . in secular opposition to Christian witness.”

Other evangelical voices made similar about-faces in the aftermath of Schempp.  Baptist fundamentalist publisher John R. Rice reflected that the relationship between evangelical faith and public schooling had changed drastically.  He recounted for his readers how things had been radically different in the not-too-distant past:

Once when I was engaged in revival services in the Second Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I was invited to speak in every high school in the city and in the principal grade schools, both white and colored, and was gladly received.  The only people offended were those involved in the few elementary schools where I could not come for lack of time. 

Such halcyon days, however, had been destroyed by the cowardly Supreme Court.  Worst of all, Rice concluded, the court seemed to have the support of “the public sentiment.”

This sense of a drastic and sudden shift in the relationship between evangelical belief and public life was widely shared among all different sorts of conservative evangelical Protestants in the aftermath of Schempp.  One writer in the Moody Bible Institute’s Moody Monthly, for example, concluded that evangelicals must retreat to play the role of God’s “witnesses and lights in a dark place” in mainstream American culture.

Similarly, the intellectuals at Christianity Today articulated their shock and dismay of the implications of Schempp. At first, the editors believed that America’s “devout masses” still supported school prayer.  As did other evangelicals, however, they concluded bitterly that “In the schools secularization has triumphed.”  Instead of relying on devout masses, the editors soon hoped only to energize the “believing remnant” in America to support Bible-reading and prayer in public schools.

As we’ll see in future posts, the Schempp decision might not have had the drastic impact many of these writers assumed at the time.  Nevertheless, the degree of unanimity among a wide variety of conservative evangelical Protestants is remarkable.  From separatist fundamentalists to more ecumenical neo-evangelicals, prominent voices all agreed that this momentous decision had done more than just kicked God out of public schools.  In their opinions, Schempp had forced a sudden recalculation of the role of Bible believers in all of American public life.

Coming soon: Thunderbolt, Part III: What thunderbolt?