How to Choose a College ... and Keep Your Faith

Gordon Govier
February 15, 2016

With more than 4,000 colleges and universities available in the United States, choosing a college is a daunting task if you are a graduating high school student. And considering that choices made in college shape the trajectory of the rest of your life, its significance can’t be underestimated.

Of course every one of those 4,000 institutions successfully educates hundreds to thousands of people every year. And, truth be told, the effort that you put into your studies matters more than the institution that you choose to attend. But all campuses are not equal, some research is necessary on your part.

A number of websites will give you criteria to evaluate a college, based on such factors as your anticipated major (or future occupation), resources at your disposal (including financial aid), and location (proximity to your home and the local climate may be important considerations). Such lists are proliferating, almost to a bewildering degree. Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education published what looks like a very helpful website for comparing campuses. it's called College Reality Check.

Some websites rank colleges and universities according to certain criteria, including academic reputation. Other websites offer a variety of other criteria. Your school guidance counselor is a good resource to help process all of this information. If you’re thinking about visiting some college campuses to check them out, we have a separate article on campus visits. And one of our InterVarsity staff members has written a helpful blog post on "Does God Care What College You Attend?"

State vs Private

For many students the decision comes down to a choice between a larger (and less expensive) state college and a smaller (more expensive) private Christian school. In some cases the financial aids from the Christian school might shrink the cost difference and the student is left with the question, “Which will be better for my career, and for my faith?”

For this article, let’s focus on the faith issue. You may be aware of surveys which appear to show that large percentages of Christians who profess faith in high school leave the practice of their faith by the time they graduate from college. And you may be asking, “Where is God leading me to attend college?”

It appears counter-intuitive, but some research shows that Christian colleges and universities may not necessarily be the most faith-building choice. This is not to denigrate the quality of education provided by the members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, or similar Christian schools. It may well be that in your case, one of these schools may provide the best opportunity for you to pursue the call that God has placed on your life.

Surprising Research

However, an article in the March 7, 2010, issue of The Chronicle Review, published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, states that attending college as a member of an evangelical minority group tends to strengthen the faith of a student. Whereas attending a Bible college or religious school, where almost everyone believes the same religious teachings, is not always a faith-healthy environment.

“Homogeneity contributes to a more lenient attitude among Christian students,” author Edward Dutton stated, summarizing his study of Christian students in the Netherlands. Dutton contrasted his research with the work of Phillip E. Hammond and James Davison Hunter. “Their survey found that Christian students who attend Ivy League and other respected institutions tend to leave more fervently evangelical than when they began college,” he wrote. “Such universities tend to challenge students’ faith, prompting them to [activities which] preserve their sense of who they are.”

It's Not (Quite) Like the Movies

You may have seen a movie or read an article that suggests Christians face a hostile environment on many college campuses. Most campuses aren't quite as depicted in one move or one article but there are a whole range of challenges a Christian will face on campus, as InterVarsity's Greg Jao explained in interviews with Mission Network News and CBN News.

How you respond to the challenges on campus will determine whether your faith will grow along with your knowledge in the other areas that you study. Greg suggests three priorities for a Christian on campus:

  • Learn to study scripture - InterVarsity is big on Bible studies
  • Develop community - learn how to live your faith in the fellowship of other believes
  • Engage your studies from a Christian viewpoint - God cares about your vocation and how it fits into His mission

If you do well in these areas in college, you will be equipped to live out your faith for the rest of your life.

Be Proactive on Campus

So Christians shouldn’t fear the big state university if that’s where you enroll. In his book Faith At State (InterVarsity Press, 1995), Rick Kennedy describes the big state university as more like a small town than a big city. His advice to Christian students is to seek out a campus fellowship group and a local church.

And become a citizen, not just a consumer. Get involved with the life of the campus. Look for ways that God is at work on campus. This is good advice no matter which school you attend.

In another campus guidebook for Christians, The First 4 Years Are The Hardest (InterVarsity Press, 1980), Michael Pountney advises students, “The basic props of any Christian life are fellowship and the Daily Quiet Time.” The Quiet Time is prayer and Bible study, practiced on a consistent basis.

As for finding fellowship, Pountney observes that other Christians should not be invisible. “You recognize Christians by the fact that they love with a fierce, extraordinary love.”

Know Before You Go

Today, with the internet and social media, it’s even easier to find other Christians when you’re new on campus or even before your arrival. Your first 72 hours on campus are the most important hours of your college career. The first choices you make in terms of friends, peer groups, and using your free time will heavily determine how you will navigate your college course. You and your parents may want to consider ahead of time how to prepare for those 72 hours by focusing on the social, spiritual, financial, academic, and time-management issues that you will face in college.

A new ministry called College Church Connection offers a way to find out about campus Christian communities before you arrive on campus. There's a small fee for the personal survey and research involved, but the information provided could be very helpful.

The College Transition Initiative of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding also offers a college prep seminar. In an interview with InterVarsity’s Mike Hickerson on the Emerging Scholars blog, Initiative director Derek Melleby offered four questions that every college bound student should ask. One of the four is, “With whom will you surround yourself?” (Derek has a book, Make College Count.)

The website, which is sponsored by the Youth Transition Network (YTN) and its 65 partner campus ministries, is designed to help you connect with those ministries, even as early as your college search process. You can enter the name of a campus, a city, or even a zip code, to find out what ministries are available to college students in your area, or even locate a potential roommate.

InterVarsity is on Many Campuses

Part of the answer to that question relates to the kind of Christian community available to college students. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has more than 900 chapters on more than 600 campuses. Those numbers include 108 chapters at the schools on the 2008 U.S. News and World Report list of the top 25 colleges but there are also chapters on community college campuses. For another perspective on InterVarsity’s ministry on campus, check out this story by CBN News.

InterVarsity chapters provide much more than fellowship. They give you opportunities to grow your faith and challenge you with ways to respond to God’s call to serve Him no matter what your chosen field. They will also often help connect you with Christian faculty. For some up-to-date additional reading to help you prepare for the transition, here are three suggestions:

In addition here are some thoughtful posts on the InterVarsity blog by Steven Grahmann (Your Faith Can't Survive College) and Mike Hickerson (Is There Hope for the College-Bound Student?). No matter where you are studying, you can take advantage of such InterVarsity resources as InterVarsity Press and the triennial Urbana Student Missions Conference.

Either a Christian or a secular college can be a good choice if you seek Christ first in your life, focus on connecting with other believers, and study hard.

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