Christian Colleges vs. Secular Colleges — What's the Difference?

Choosing a college is one of the most significant choices a person makes in life. Underlying that statement is my belief that a college environment can have a profound influence that lasts a lifetime.

The intention of this article is to offer what I hope will provide a fresh perspective regarding the choice between a Christian college and a secular college.

I'm confident that important characteristics such as academic excellence, internships, school size, location, career opportunities, quality of faculty, variety of programs, extra-curricular activities, etc. can be found at both secular and Christian schools across the country. With that being said, why then should one consider enrolling at a Christian college?

According to the US Department of Education, one group of Christian colleges, CCCU schools, grew over 70% from 1990 to 2004. During that same period of time, all independent four year schools grew 28%, while public four year institutions grew only about 13%. These statistics reveal that there must be something "different" about Christian colleges. I believe this difference can be primarily attributed to the environment, and it is this difference that provides the most compelling reason to enroll at a Christian college.

If you've been following higher education in the media over the past couple of years, you've likely heard some alarming news from both state and private secular institutions. I believe most people would agree that institutions of higher education in the US have promoted themselves as places of respect, tolerance and diversity. The irony is that there seems to be an ever growing intolerance for diversity in regards to issues of faith, values and even politics in higher education.

Consider the following statement:

  • At secular schools across the country, people of faith are often not respected and even ridiculed for their beliefs.

You may be surprised to learn that I generally don't believe this statement to be true, nor do I believe this attitude would be allowed at secular schools in this country. However, adding a single word to this statement dramatically changes both the meaning and the accuracy of the statement:

  • At secular schools across the country, people of Christian faith are often not respected and even ridiculed for their beliefs.

If you disagree with this statement, I challenge you to ask a few committed Christians attending secular schools how their professors and classmates view their faith.

While there likely are exceptions to this rule, if you're considering the difference between a secular and Christian school, the intolerance toward Christian values on secular campuses is an essential issue to consider.

Most fair minded people would agree that the environment where one lives has an affect on that individual. In 1994 a study was conducted that showed that approximately 52% of students who attended public institutions either no longer called themselves "born again" or had not attended a religious service of any kind in over a year. This study was done over ten years ago. One wonders what this figure would look like today.

A traditional college age student begins their collegiate career at about 18 years old. For a student from a Christian home, there are two sets of beliefs that the student likely takes with them that are particularly pertinent:

  1. The student's Christian faith/values
  2. Respect for those in authority

While it may be argued that secular schools challenge these beliefs overtly, the greater challenge for the Christian student may be the unexpected collision of these two principles.

For 18 years, most students in this group have a basic and appropriate trust of those in authority over them. Their experience has demonstrated that the vast majority of people in authority positions have their best interest at heart - parents, pastors and even teachers. So what happens when authority figures suddenly have a very different set of values than the students, or even a completely different agenda? While the student has learned the importance of respecting those in authority, that authority figure may be the very person ridiculing the student's faith, values and worldview. Perhaps this represents one reason why the above study discovered such a large number of students "walking away" from their faith.

Does this mean that if you're a Christian who attends a secular college, you will turn your back on your faith? Of course not. However, the issue is more personal than statistics and generalities. The real issue is whether or not a Christian college is the best choice for you. While it's important to consider Christian colleges for what they offer, it's also crucial to make an honest comparison to the alternative - a secular campus environment.

Some may think that Christian colleges merely offer a "safe haven", a place that is separated from the "challenges" in the world. I believe this view is unrealistic and flawed. It is disingenuous to think that there are not challenges to overcome at a Christian college in terms of faith, lifestyle, and ethical choices. However, generally speaking, the faculty, staff and students within a Christian college environment are concerned with seeing the student develop in all areas of life.

A Christian college offers more than just the "addition" of Christian beliefs to the educational experience. Christian faith is not merely an "extra" at Christian colleges, it is a critical element woven into the fabric of the college experience. The Christian dynamic is evident not just in chapel or a Sunday service, but also during pizza in the dorm at midnight, during an honest debate over moral and theological principles in the dining hall, and during a discussion of ethics in regards to career and family. The Christian component is noticeable in the classroom, but it is not limited by those walls. I believe this is the real difference of a Christian college environment, as well as a key reason why there has been such tremendous growth at Christian colleges. It is Christian colleges that must encourage true tolerance, respect and diversity, as these are essential principles within Christianity.

Christian colleges offer much more than a "safe haven", they offer life preparation. Christian campuses should not be viewed as an opportunity to avoid the world, but rather as an opportunity to influence the world. The years spent within a Christian college environment can aid the student's ability to serve, thrive, and become a modern day follower of Jesus Christ - regardless of their profession. Christian colleges are in a unique position to honestly address the spiritual and moral issues that people of every age face every day. People can spend years in training for their chosen profession, sport, and hobbies. Christian colleges can offer all of those opportunities, but within a Christian context where the student becomes more prepared to impact and live within our world.

Attending a Christian college means you don't have to settle for only part of the educational experience.

Thom Seagren
The Christian Connector, Inc.
Christian College Grad, Class of 1987