What are the most important criteria for selecting a college?

April 2, 2018

The Monthly “Research Institute Forum” is an initiative of the Research Institute of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Learn more about the Research Institute.

Given that many students are narrowing down decisions on which college to attend during this time of the year, I am wondering if you all would each answer the question:

As professors, what would you tell parents and students are the most important criteria for selecting a college?

Nathan Finn

As an academic dean in a small Christian university, I regularly talk with prospective students and their parents about this very issue. I think certain criteria always apply, and others apply in only some situations. I’ll put them in the form of questions that prospective students and parents need to be asking.

First, what is the student’s sense of vocation, and which academic programs are best suited to that calling? This question presumes that you are thinking in terms of God’s calling more than less-important questions such as compensation, prestige, etc. It’s important for believers to think about the vocation(s) God might be leading them toward based upon a combination of desire, giftedness, wise counsel, opportunity for kingdom influence, etc. I believe the answer to this question is more important than questions about institutions and even majors, since more than one pathway might lead to vocational flourishing. (Side note: pastors and youth ministers need to be equipping the church to think vocationally rather than simply occupationally, but that is another topic for another day.)

Second, which institutions offer combinations of a solid foundation in the liberal arts and strong major opportunities? The liberal arts help to form students into particular types of people, while in many cases one’s major(s) helps prepare them for certain types of occupations. So is there a sufficient grounding in the arts, humanities, and sciences that can enable students to flourish in their chosen major, whether the latter is in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, a STEM-related field, a health profession, or business?

Third, if you are considering Christian colleges and universities, which ones seem consistently Christ-centered, and what is the their academic reputation? The best Christian institutions are guided by a strong commitment to a Christian worldview, engagement with the Christian intellectual tradition, and the intentional integration of faith and learning across the academic disciplines and professions. Some Christian schools aren’t that different from the regional state school down the road, other than offering a couple of Bible classes and chapel services. Many nominally Christian schools don’t take seriously the implications of the gospel for all of life. Avoid institutions that either downplay the role of faith or settle for academic mediocrity.

Fourth, if you are considering secular institutions, what opportunities are available through campus ministries and area churches to help a student grow in his or her faith? This question applies to Christian schools as well, but it’s especially relevant when looking at secular schools. If you believe God is leading you to attend an institution that is non-committal or even hostile toward Christianity, make sure you maintain meaningful connections to a healthy local church and the wider body of Christ. Know in advance that you will be able to thrive spiritually, perhaps in spite of the worldview(s) you are immersed in on campus.

Finally, what options make the most sense from a financial standpoint? Every school wants you to believe their education is worth the cost—and in some cases, this is undoubtedly true. But the fact is, families are in the driver’s seat: schools need your money more than you need their programs. Few students attend college for free, so for most folks, it’s a significant financial investment. Make sure you are making a wise investment, that you are incurring as little debt as possible, and that you have a plan to pay down any debt as soon as reasonably possible after you are finished with your formal education.

Andrew Lewis

I have now spent the majority of my academic and professional career in public universities, but I have also spent time at selective private universities and an evangelical seminary with an undergraduate college. From my experience and observation, finding the right college is more about what you do when you arrive on campus than what sort of institution you choose. A variety of colleges can provide paths to educational and career development, while aiding personal and spiritual growth. But it is primarily up to the student to pursue these goals, hopefully with excitement and discipline.

When selecting a college, you certainly want a quality institution, a dedicated faculty, career resources, and the presence of a supportive Christian community. Yet, colleges cannot force their students to attend class, study, develop professional skills, build mature friendships, and cultivate real Christian maturity. Individual students must seize these opportunities.

Some colleges might be better at promoting these qualities and channeling students toward making positive choices. The right kind of programs, curricular and extra-curricular demands, and campus culture can incentivize students to diligence and reflective engagement in the process of becoming educated and building good character.

Unfortunately, special curricula and an overtly Christian culture can often carry a hefty financial price tag. Basically, there are trade-offs. Some are financial on the front-end (tuition), some financial on the back-end (earnings), and some less measurable character qualities (e.g., intellectual, spiritual, personal, etc.).

So what should parents and students do? I suggest that they assess their personal situation with honesty. What are the student’s realistic career goals? What does the family’s financial picture look like to achieve these goals? How disciplined and mature is the student, and where could he or she use help? What type of resources, curriculum, and culture would be most helpful for sustained educational success, while also protecting and bolstering the student’s spiritual and personal life?

I recommend visiting a variety of colleges to get a feel for how the campus resources and cultures fit with the student’s needs and wants. (And while you are on these campus visits, also investigate local churches and Christian ministries.) Getting comfortable with institutional resources and culture prior to enrolling will make it easier to make the transition.

In my view, across the U.S. today, a student can generally obtain a quality education while finding a spiritually supportive community at a variety of educational institutions. A successful college experience is mostly about what happens after a student arrives on campus. Students and parents can help make those more important choices easier by considering in advance how different colleges fit with the needs of particular individuals.

Jonathan Pennington

My wife and I have six children with ages ranging from 21 down to 13. We have one who is about to graduate from a private Christian college, one who is a sophomore at a state university, another one who will be a university freshman in the Fall, plus three more teenagers still at home. College has been a big topic of discussion and stress in our household for some time and will continue to be for some years to come!

I’m quite hesitant to give overly specific advice about college decisions because so many factors are person-specific—vocation, calling, financial situation, intellectual abilities, etc. But I can offer a few thoughts of a general and visionary nature.

First, a college degree can and should give job-related skills, but this is not the ultimate goal of education. Education is first and last about forming us to be a certain kind of people. From the ancient Greek tradition of paideia, down to the American vision of an educated populace necessary for democracy, education has rightly been understood as shaping people’s sensibilities, loves, and vision toward individual and societal human flourishing through a broad, liberal arts curriculum. Christians, of all people, should value highly the formation of the individual, not just the acquisition of skills.

The practical import of this for making college decisions is that various colleges should be valued accordingly as to what they offer beyond pragmatic skills. For many, this may mean the decision to attend a Christian college, but not necessarily. I would prefer a well-rounded and balanced university educational curriculum and experience over a narrow skill-set and limited-scope education, whether Christian or not.

Second, one of the greatest factors in higher education decisions like never before is the exorbitant cost relative to average household incomes. Again, so many factors are at play with this issue that it is impossible to be dogmatic. I would generally encourage incurring minimal debt (both parents and students), though I don’t think it is necessarily a mistake to take loans for education if one considers education as a financial investment in one’s future earning potential as well as life-satisfaction.

At the same time, none of us should buy a house we can’t afford to live in. So we must seek a wise decision about the costs incurred in private versus public education in conjunction with the degree earned and its potential in enabling a return on investment. Of our three kids who are of college age, different decisions have been made on the financial side—decisions that included the major chosen, scholarships earned, and individual desires.

Finally, it is life-giving to remember that God’s will is nearly always a circle not a dot. That is, God is inviting us to be wise but we need not live in anxiety about accidentally making the wrong college choice. There are pros and cons for every situation, and the Father gladly provides and blesses his children without reluctance. Consider the many factors, pray for wisdom, and then step toward what seems best with confidence that God is at work in us for our good.

The views represented in this post belong only to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ERLC.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24