How to Evaluate Christian Colleges: Six Questions Parents Should Ask
When you think of a Christian college, what image comes to mind? For many of us, we envision idyllic campuses, brick buildings, devout professors, zealous students, fervent worship, transformative bible studies, and life-long friendships. Christian colleges have influenced the lives of millions of Americans, fostering generations of faithful followers of Christ. But how well does that image of the past represent the reality of today? Outwardly, many of the elements remain the same. But, underneath, the foundations of many Christian institutions are slowly cracking. Ask shocking at it may seem, today it is no longer an exaggeration to say that most Christian colleges have fundamentally compromised their commitment to a Biblical worldview. The young Christian students we send to college will face the spirit of the age not only from the media and from their peers, but also from unbiblical ideologies now taking root on their own campuses.
The story of how this has happened is lengthy, and not everyone will agree on every detail. But, this brief article is designed to help parents and students assess to what extent a Christian college holds fast to the truths which you rightly expect it to. Christian parents want to find a college that will, above all, strengthen the faith of their children, not work to destroy it. Christian students want to be at a college with like-minded peers and trustworthy faculty. Below is our advice about important questions to ask as you seek to find an institution that fits what you want and expect out of a Christian college.
Not everyone will agree on exactly what sort of institution is best. Are you comfortable with professors being permitted to hold to either believer’s baptism or infant baptism? Would you accept both Protestant and Roman Catholic professors? Do you want daily chapel or no chapel at all? Some things that are beyond the pale for some families are acceptable or even comfortable for others. But every family should have an honest picture of what a college is really like before they agree to entrust them with their children and their money. Every concerned parent, school guidance counselor, and pastor should know where the college stands on the key theological and cultural issues of today.
The true ethos of a college is often hard to capture, especially if you rely only on promotional material. There is no substitute for speaking directly with and reading articles by those who lead the institution. This article offers you questions that will help you identify a college that fits with what you really want, and remains faithful to biblical teaching. We suggest six questions parents should ask college administrators, presidents, board members, professors, and staff.
- Does the college have a statement of faith? Who must sign it: every faculty member, student life staffer, and administrative executive?
The religious heritage of many once-faithful colleges no longer serves as the guiding ethos for the institutions. Just because it was “known as” a biblical institution 30 years ago, or because it has “always been” Presbyterian, this does not mean that religious heritage still has a formative influence on that school. Claims that the college operates “in the Wesleyan Tradition” or with an “Evangelical Heritage,” are not enough Parents and their students must identify the specific beliefs that drive the institution today. If a theological idea is not explicitly ruled out by the statement of faith and associated documents (staff handbook, community covenant, etc.), you should presume that somebody at the college believes it and could teach or counsel your student to favor it. As Dr. Jay Bruce notes: “Parents should assume the broadest interpretation of Christian words” that appear in college documents. If the statement of faith doesn’t say “inerrancy” when talking about Scripture, then it is intentionally allowing for a looser definition of the authority of Scripture. If it doesn’t say “sola scriptura” or “scripture alone” then the college is probably open to hiring Roman Catholics.
Beyond the substant of the statement, it is essential to know who has to adhere to the beliefs of the institution. You will need to find out whether all faculty and key staff members have to agree to that statement of faith. If professors and student life staff, for example, do not have to sign a clear and robust statement of faith, you should assume that your child may have professors who are atheists or theological liberals. They may have a “dorm mother” or Student Life Director who denies the full inspiration of scripture and the reality of hell, rejects the Solas of the Reformation, and holds to any form of heterodoxy and heteropraxy imaginable. Again, if a theological idea is not explicitly ruled out by the statement of faith, you should presume somebody at the college likely believes it and is advocating for it.
Even the formal requirement of adherence to a statement is often not enough. Even colleges with a good statement of faith can fail to adequately vet prospective faculty and staff members on the basis of that statement. Good documents must actually exercise a decisive, directive influence on how the institution hires and evaluates its employees. Other indicators about the status of the statement of faith will clue you in to how much weight it carries.
- Is it prominently featured in college materials and the Web site?
- How often do faculty members have to re-affirm the statement—annually or only when they are first hired?
In your college visit, asses how seriously this institution takes the truths of God’s word. Were college leaders committed to creating a robust, theologically rich place of learning?
2. Does the college have a statement that addresses same-sex romantic relationships and transgenderism? Who must sign it: every student, faculty member, student life staffer, and administrative executive?
In the current culture, as you surely know, you can no longer take for granted that someone who affirms basic elements of Christian theology also agrees with Christian ethics on topics related to marriage, sex, and transgenderism. A number of Evangelical institutions have recently begun to permit same-sex relationships among their faculty and/or student body. Some schools allow transgender students and others do not. Christian parents and students must ask themselves: Am I comfortable being taught by faculty and counseled by staff that may approve of same-sex attraction, transgenderism, and other aspects of the new sexual pluralism? Can I accept having my fellow students live unbiblically on those issues?
If there is no clear institutional statement to which faculty, staff, and students must adhere, you should presume that some significant proportion of them will be accommodated to the new sexual pluralism. Many faculty and staff at Christian colleges received their own academic training at secular schools or more liberal “in name only” Christian universities. Though they may genuine desire to follow Christ, their academic training is often of the sort that makes it difficult to remain a devout Christian. On sexuality issues in particular, it is now dangerous for faculty to speak out on secular campuses out of fear of being “canceled” and being removed from their program. Many, whether consciously or unconsciously, have ended up going with the cultural flow. Student life staff, too, are subject to these pressures over the course of their education. Many have college degrees in some of the most anti-Christian fields in secular higher education: psychology, education, and related fields. Even at Christian colleges, where many of these staff members were education, those departments are very often the least stalwart ones on issues affecting Christian sexual morality.
In light of this, don’t be afraid to ask very specific questions:
- Ask to see the language in the faculty, staff, and student handbooks that address these issues. Ask yourself whether that language is adequate to safeguard the institution.
- Ask whether there are any current faculty or staff openly supportive of same-sex relationships or actually living in one. It may seem impossible, given the promotional materials of the college, but ask.
- Ask whether there are any current faculty or staff openly supportive of living as a transgendered person. Are there any openly transgendered faculty members? It may seem impossible, given the promotional materials of the college, but ask.
- Ask what would happen if a faculty or staff members did begin to support these things. Does the institution allow for a range of viewpoints, or do they require belief in the Biblical teaching that “from the beginning, He made them male and female”?
Some schools have statements from 15 years ago on same-sex marriage and perhaps abortion, but these documents likely say nothing about transgenderism, gender identity, same-sex attraction, or same-sex romantic relationships. If they haven’t updated their language to address these topics, take extra care: they might be allowing a range of opinions on the issue.
3. What concrete steps is the college taking to address the dangers of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the emerging progressive ideology?
One of the unbiblical ideologies that is infiltrating Christian colleges today is Critical Race Theory. At a first glance, Critical Race Theory can seem like a neutral set of intellectual tools, useful for assessing the moral problems in a society. But, in reality it is a different worldview, with Marxist philosophical roots and anti-Biblical ideas about human nature, sin, salvation, and ultimate justice. Dominant in secular education, it is now making its way into Christian colleges through multiple avenues: student life staff who are trained in secular education programs, faculty who are trained in secular graduate schools, administrators who want to avoid drawing negative attention to their schools if they don’t go with the flow, and activist students trained in their K-12 schools.
Look for tangible evidence that the college is intentionally counteracting the influence of Critical Race Theory. Seek evidence of things like:
- Has a speaker at a school-wide event forthrightly explained CRT’s problems?
- Have all student life staff been required to read a book that analyzes and rebuts CRT?
- Has any professor at the school given a public lecture on CRT?
If the school assures you that it has dealt with this question adequately for its students, do your homework yourself. Ask to get a copy of a lecture or to view it online; order the book that students or staff have been asked to read and read it yourself. Find out whether these speeches or books clearly reject Critical Race Theory or whether they encourage a neutral or even positive attitude toward this issue on campus, making it more palatable and acceptable. Ideally, Christian colleges should have an official college statement on Critical Race Theory, but even the best school might not have done that yet.
If you cannot find clear evidence that the college is resisting this ideology, expect that the school tolerates it and that CRT is probably widely accepted across the campus. Expect CRT to emerge, with heavy social pressure to conform, in places ranging from mandatory residence life programs to chapel speakers to courses in psychology, sociology, education, philosophy, and literature. So great is the pressure that even orthodox, conservative professors who don’t agree with Critical Race Theory can be afraid to oppose it publicly. The pressures of conformity, and the threat of termination, are strong.
4. Ask to see a list of this year’s speakers at chapel, graduation, and school-wide lecture series. Research these speakers to find out whether their commitments fit with your own.
If the college has school-wide chapel services, the speakers who are invited will give you strong clues as to the tenor of the institution. Are they wishy-washy lightweights, mere mouthpieces for today’s current fads? Are they robust Bible professors bringing meaty biblical exegesis? Are they Biblical and conservative — engaging today’s issues in a way you support — or do they mouth the ideas of the world? Do such speakers fit with the intellectual and moral diet you would like for the next four years? If possible, listen to these lectures with your prospective student and discuss them.
This is not to say that a college should never bring opposing views to campus. Good colleges will often bring in speakers representing a wide variety of viewpoints, especially outside the structure of its chapel program. College should be a place where ideas get tested and students encounter difficult subjects in a supportive environment, so a few speakers who are interesting but not-fully-orthodox are not necessarily a problem. But, look closely at where the weightof the speakers falls, and whether there are any that are extreme and anti-orthodox? For example, a scientist who claims to be evangelical but rejects the existence of an historical Adam and Eve might be a reasonable guest speaker in a Genetics class, but a pastor with similar beliefs represented as a Christian minister in a chapel series would be an entirely different matter. So would that same scientist as a full-time professor at the college. It is one thig to encounter an idea in a classroom with a faithful professor helping a student think through it, but it is another thing entirely for that idea to become a formative and unopposed part of your student’s education. You want to find out, based on what the majority of the speakers are like, whether this institution is faithful to the truth.
5. Ask what steps the college takes to actively enforce the doctrinal and moral commitments of the institution. Ask, for example, whether any faculty or staff member has been let go because they could no longer adhere to the college’s statement of faith or other theological standards.
Doctrinal and moral commitments must be enforced if they are going to prove useful. At every school over a certain size there will be people whose beliefs are slowly shifting, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in bad. In a healthy environment, someone whose ideas have shifted away from the mission of the college will voluntarily resign or else be invited or compelled to leave the institution. Over any five to ten year period of time, there should be some evidence that the school is actually adhering to and enforcing its doctrinal and ethical boundaries, not using newly discovered social morality to allow mission drift. If there is not concrete evidence of enforcement, you should probe further. Either the boundary means very little or the school has been unusually fortunate. When it comes to firing employees, schools have legal restrictions on what they can say, so they might resist saying anything. Sometimes they can refer you to publicly available news articles that covered what happened. These articles often have enough information to make an informed judgment.
6. If you have heard negative stories about the college, or read things that don’t seem to fit, write to the president and ask for an explanation.
Perhaps it’s an anecdote from a friend, something you heard from a recent graduate, or a blog post that seemed really worrisome. If you’ve heard something bad, ask about it. “I read Dr. Smith’s blog and he seemed to deny the inerrancy of scripture – is that true?” Or “I read Dr. Jones’s recent op-ed and he seemed to be supporting transgenderism – is that true?” Or “My friend’s grandson came home from his freshman year more zealous about political activism than to spread the gospel. What are the required freshman courses?” Keep digging until you find out what really happened and whether something like that is likely to happen again in the future. When something truly fishy is going on, the answers won’t add up.
What should you do if you find that a prospective college doesn’t have good answers to every question? There is no perfect college, so every parent and student must decide for themselves whether the environment is adequate. But, above all, ask them to change. Parents, pastors, Christian K-12 schools, and donors have the ability to influence institutions toward greater faithfulness.Colleges view parents and students as customers (not just as customers, but customers nonetheless). When parents complain, the college listens. If the contact information is on the website, we recommend directly emailing the President or head of enrollment to express your concerns about how the college does not seem to be living up to its Christian mission. If even 5% of prospective parents would do this, it would mean a sea change in how colleges approach their student “market.” If prospective students started asking about these issues, colleges would take note. Christian parents can help move colleges in a Biblical direction through this kind of direct advocacy.
Recognize there are likely still many very good professors and other students at the college. At the end of the day, it may still be the right college for you to attend. Knowing the full truth can help you as parents and as students make the best decision for your situation.
Our hope with these questions is that parents will be equipped to ask questions which encourage faithfulness at Christian institutions. American Christianity needs faithful Christian colleges, and our hope is that every one of them would succeed and thrive – but, only insofar as they remain in or return to faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ. When we walk in faithfulness to His calling, according to His truth, it is then that we are blessed.
This article was written with input from a former Provost at a CCCU college. He prefers to remain anonymous at this time.