Why Christian Colleges Are Thriving

Evangelical colleges and universities have been thriving. According to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the one hundred or so “intentionally Christ-centered institutions” that they count among their affiliates have been growing at a remarkably faster rate than have other major sorts of American colleges and universities. From 1990 to 2004, all public four-year campuses grew by about 13%, all independent four year campuses (including many schools with broad religious or denominational connections) grew by about 28%. But schools associated with the CCCU grew by nearly 71%.
One factor contributing to this growth is that these schools offer the sort of coherent educational experience that has become increasingly difficult to find elsewhere in American higher education. By way of contrast, consider Harry R. Lewis’s, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (2006). Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College, laments that Harvard is driven by so many competing careerist and ideological interests that there is little attention either in the curriculum or among faculty (who are rewarded only for scholarship) to fostering healthy personal and moral growth among its students. If that is the case at Harvard, one can imagine the incoherence of the educational experience at the huge state universities and the many community colleges where the vast majority of America’s collegians get their degrees. Most of what students study involves practical skills in preparation for careers. Liberal arts are incidental to most undergraduate experience. The best hope for “community” is found in fraternities and sororities or more likely just in a dorm containing many sub-groups of those who happen to find common recreational interests.

In the meantime colleges such as those in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have been maturing academically and offering the sort of well-rounded collegiate experience that one might imagine was more characteristic of Harvard and other liberal arts institutions of half a century ago. (I write as a graduate of Haverford College who is nearing a fiftieth reunion and I can testify to these commonalities.) To understand the flowering of Christian colleges, one has to realize that their overall academic quality has been steadily increasing for decades. For the past generation as more and more evangelicals attended colleges, their communities have been producing a striking number of academics. Today in leading graduate programs around the country one can find impressive contingents of evangelical students. Many of these are in the liberal arts, since they have grown up in communities where ideas have consequences. Many others explore human behavior in the social sciences or are attracted to the disciplines and the beauties of the hard sciences. Since for the past generation all colleges have enjoyed a buyer’s market in faculty hiring, even the most modest of evangelical schools have been able to build highly talented and excellently trained faculties both in the arts and the sciences. As a rule, evangelical faculties at CCCU schools are a long way from the culture-wars stereotypes that some people attribute to evangelicals in general. Rather, while they may be more conservative on average than are academics as a whole, these faculties represent some of the most thoughtful elements in their communities and include some distinctly progressive voices.
While increased academic excellence is a factor in the growth of evangelical colleges, probably more immediately important in the decisions to attend such colleges are the coherent supportive communities that provide the context for such education. Being part of a community that is supportive of one’s faith is one attraction. But there are many other benefits to being at a smaller campus where there is a strong sense of community and one is likely to find many kindred spirits. Nonetheless, when people are deciding whether to pay the considerable extra cost for such a college experience the fact that these schools are genuinely competitive academically helps justify the decision. Such schools offer curricula that have the sort of coherence that larger and more diverse schools typically lack. Every student, even in specialized technical areas, is likely to have some substantial exposure to the liberal arts. They will also take a few courses in the religious tradition itself. Moreover these academic offerings come as part of a larger communal educational experience that they can share with many who have similar interests and concerns.
It is, of course, easy to think of downsides to such educational experience. Even though all such schools work hard at welcoming racial and ethnic minorities, most are not as diverse as they might be. And some observers may object to Christian higher education simply on ideological grounds. More sympathetic critics might point out that even though a sophisticated professoriate introduces students to the whole range of human outlooks, students are not likely to have much direct encounter with those whose worldviews differ widely from their own. Christian educators themselves sometimes worry about this “hot-house” effect on those who may be so protected that they may not be well prepared to survive in a more challenging environment. Christian colleges and universities attempt to counter such difficulties with many “study abroad” programs and with inner-city service projects and the like. But the relative isolation of a community that retains a religious identity undoubtedly involves some tradeoffs.
Despite these considerations, even observers who are ideologically distant from such communities might consider their potential contributions to the larger American society. If diversity is something to be valued, then American sub-communities need their own institutions if they are not simply to be blended into the melting pot. Churches are, of course, the mainstays of most of America’s myriad of religious sub-communities. But if churches lack supporting educational institutions, eventually their constituents are more likely to be homogenized into the generalized American blend. Furthermore, outside observers have long complained—often with justification—of the anti-intellectualism bred by many versions of the evangelical-revivalist Protestantism that has been so widespread in the United States. One of the most effective counters to this real problem is for evangelicals themselves to have strong intellectual communities. That is exactly what has been developing in the past generation and, on the face of it, this trend seems to be something that might be widely applauded. A society as large as the United States is bound to include peoples of widely differing beliefs on many issues. The solution is not to convince everyone to think alike, but rather to encourage those who differ to do so thoughtfully and with respect and tolerance. Evangelical colleges and universities contribute to such attitudes and hence can be valuable sources of social capital. Often strongly religious communities in the world today are part of the problem. But perhaps even more often they can be part of the solution. With that in mind, we might find wide agreement that the flourishing of evangelical colleges and universities is a step in the right direction.


  • George Marsden

    George Marsden is Visiting Professor of Religious and Intellectual History at Harvard Divinity School and Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus, University of Notre Dame.

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