By Gordon Govier

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

1) Choosing a College

With more than 4,000 colleges and universities available in the United States, choosing a college is a daunting task for the 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 there are a number of places that will rate schools for you. Truth be told, the effort that you put into college matters more than the institution that you choose to attend. But still, you’re looking for a good fit for you. So where do you start?

Websites that offer advice on how to pick a college recommend considering your anticipated major, as well as climate and proximity to your home. Financial issues weigh heavily;  Consumer Reports has "Ten Questions Every Family Should Discuss."

Then, of course, there's the campus tour. It's good to evaluate and compare in person. Or is it? This New York Times article suggests skipping the tour and relying on an "experience surrogate." The Chronicle of Higher Education has a report: "The 7 Things Students Think About When Choosing a College."

For many students the decision comes down to a choice between a larger (and less expensive) state college and a smaller (more expensive) private school. In some cases the financial aids from the private 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?” You may ask, as an InterVarsity staff member asked, "Does God Care What College You Attend?"

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

However, an article in the 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 the healthiest faith 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.”

Here's a Christianity Today report on a study in Christian Higher Education that also "shows how common it is for students at evangelical colleges and universities to struggle with their faith."

After choosing a college, of course, there's also the whole issue of choosing a major. Nathan Gebharad offered some tips on that in an article in the New York Times.

God does care which college you attend but not necessarily in the way that you think. And, or course, which major and career you choose. That’s why prayer is a critical part of the process. Inform yourself as well as you can but also pray for God’s guidance.

2) Keeping Your Faith on Campus

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. Or 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 movie or one article but there are a whole range of challenges a Christian will face on campus, as InterVarsity vice president 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. New students are often overwhelmed by the choices and options on campus as well as a desire to get the most out of their college experience. At the same time, no one else has the responsibility of nurturing your faith but you. Greg suggests three priorities that help a Christian thrive on campus:

  • Learn to study Scripture – Find a group like InterVarsity, where you can learn together with others.
  • Develop community – Get to know fellow believers who will support you but also challenge you, and may become lifelong friends
  • Engage your studies from a Christian viewpoint – Every major, every class, is in some way focused on the world that God created.

Christians shouldn’t fear the big state university, if that’s where you enroll. In his book Faith At State (InterVarsity Press), 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.

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 because He is there. Ask God daily, “How can I partner with you today?” 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), 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, the tools that Christians have always used to stay connected to God and his mission.

InterVarsity’s new president, Tom Lin, makes many of the same points in his article, “Building a Firm Foundation” on InterVarsity’s website. If you do well in these areas in college, you will be equipped to live out your faith in college and beyond.

3) Preparing for College

Your first 72 hours on campus are the most important hours of your college career.The choices you make in terms of friends, peer groups, and using your free time will heavily determine how well 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. Today, with the internet and social media, it’s easy to find other Christians when you’re new on campus or even before your arrival. Here are some additional resources.

InterVarsity is on Many Campuses

Part of the answer to the question of who you surround yourself with relates to the kind of Christian community available to college students. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has more than 1,000 chapters on more than 600 campuses. Those numbers include more than 100 chapters at the schools on the U.S. News and World Report list of the top 25 colleges but there are also chapters on community college campuses. Click on the map to access contact information for InterVarsity staff on campuses you may be considering.  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. No matter where you are studying, you can take advantage of such InterVarsity resources as InterVarsity Press and the triennial Urbana Student Missions Conference.

These 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?) offer helpful insight. For some additional reading to help you prepare for the transition, here are three books about college and one book about discerning God’s guidance:

In the end, you decide. But you don’t have to decide by yourself. The advice of these counselors and others may help you, and God invites you to ask him to guide you. Whatever choice you make, God is there ahead of you. Plan to meet him there.