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What are the most important criteria for selecting a college?

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.

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