In the beginning, most universities in the U.S. were established as institutions of faith: the colonial colleges – such as Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth (Puritan), College of William and Mary (Church of England), Princeton (Presbyterian) and Rutgers University (Dutch Reformed Church) – were Christian schools in mission or affiliation.
For almost all of these and similar elite schools, the answer to grow with the times and the country was to leave their religious legacy in the microfiche files. But hundreds of other colleges and universities have not left the bible behind, often to great success. Take the case of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, Boston College and Davidson College, all of which appear in the top 25 of the FORBES Top College 2016 ranking (No. 13, 21,22 and 25, respectively).
They’re far from alone. As it turns out, of the best-ranked 130 schools in the U.S., 25 are Christian. As the country grows ever-more secular – just above half (53%) of Americans say religion is “very important in their lives” – the percentage of Christians who report the same stands at 68%. And along with that, enrollment is up at the top faith-based schools over 8% in the last 20 years, from an average 4,800 in 1994 to 5,200 in 2014.
To be sure, Christian colleges and universities are all private. The financials for students and their families who attend these schools are the same as those attending secular private institutions: steep price tags often accompanied by staggering student loan debt. But their core business of a Christian-branded education is both their differentiator and competitive advantage.
The X-factor shared by these schools is their most fundamental quality: their brand of Christian culture.
“What our schools tend to do when they talk about ‘career,’ we tend to use terms like ‘calling’ and ‘vocation,’ says Rick Ostrander, PhD, vice president for Academic Affairs and Professional Programs for the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. “We believe that God gives students particular talents but also desires. Our goal as Christian colleges is to help students discern where in the world they can be most beneficial, not just success financially or professionally, but where they can do the most good.”
The role of religion in a particular school can have a significant impact on its students. Bruce Morrill, PhD, the Edward A. Malloy Chair of Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt University and a Jesuit priest, describes a range of religious adherence at schools that varies from religious volunteerism to strict adherence.
“Wheaton [College in Illinois] would be a good example of an institution where there’s a very strong Christian identity worked right into some explicit standards with the students and the faculty,” says Morrill, “versus what I would call the volunteeristic version which would be the case for… Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College, Holy Cross.”
Some applicants are attracted to schools with more traditional religious standards, such as Brigham Young’s Church Educational System Honor Code that prohibits foul language, tobacco, alcohol and other vices. Others prefer religious diversity or leniency at schools like the College of the Holy Cross, whose one-course Studies in Religion requirement can be filled by a class in a non-Christian faith. Almost every school on the list has non-Christian faculty.
“I went to Michigan, and a lot of my friends at U of M probably wouldn’t have wanted to be at a Wheaton College.” says Ostrander. Indeed, over 86% of students at top-100 schools are at secular institutions. “You have to do your research and find out what you’re getting into and make your best choice.”
Money And Professional Connections
Once the schools’ religious elements – strict or lenient – are embraced, the top 25 Christian colleges pose a blend of short-term financial sacrifices and long-term professional benefits.
While the schools each dedicate a significant chunk of resources to financial aid – of the Christian schools in the top 100 of the Forbes ranking, half meet 100% of accepted students’ demonstrated need and 11 host need-blind admissions – the net cost of tuition for these schools is anything but divine. Even at tens of thousands of dollars below sticker price, the average price of each school for students with financial aid is $26,729 a year, over $10,000 above the national average. Only Brigham Young, a Mormon university in Utah – costs less than the national average.
“Because of the sticker price, there are concerns about college debt,” says CCCU’s Ostrander, whose organization works with top Christian schools like Illinois’ Wheaton College and Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. He adds, “That wouldn’t be unique to Christian institutions. Any private institution will be so much higher [than a public school].”
High tuition leads to high student loan debt, a pandemic that affects almost 70% of recent graduates. The average federal loan debt for recipients at the top Christian schools is $22,238, with a fifth of them hitting $27,000.
The size of these schools’ endowments shows some silver linings. The top Christian schools have an average endowment of almost $1.6 billion, or over $208,000 per student. Unsurprisingly, this is much higher than at the top public schools (about $95,000 per student) while far less than the top secular private schools (about $854,000), which include endowment titans Harvard, Yale and Princeton, which combine for over $80 billion in endowment dollars.
Endowment funds, which are restricted in how much they must invested versus spent, can translate into big dollars for scholarships, professorships and athletics.
“When you’re able to offer – as Notre Dame is – huge sums of money in a college sports program, that’s going to open up a wide range of students,” says Morill, “as well as the financial aid they can offer other students in general. That will enable a more diverse student body.”
Endowment and legacy often go hand-in-hand, and the top 25 Christian colleges are also some of the nation’s most historic. The average year of establishment for these schools is 1857, and 17 were founded before the end of the Civil War. Santa Clara University, one of four Jesuit Catholic institutions on the list, was the first college founded in California in 1851.
Endowments are also indicators of high alumni donation and involvement. Many Christian schools are known for their devoted alumni networks, and Duke University, Notre Dame, Emory University and Boston College rank in the top 100 of the Grateful Graduates Index 2016. These schools, which favor elite institutions, are ranked based on factors like alumni donations and alumni-participation rate, and Duke comes in at No. 9.
“We’re blessed with one of the most invested alumni populations that there is,” says Hilary Flanagan, director of the Career Center at Notre Dame, which has the nation’s 13th-largest endowment and, according to Best College Values, has 31.09% of alumni in management positions. “That all stems from how strongly they felt about community when they were students, and how much they want to continue to help the students that are, as far as they see it, from the second they step foot on campus are a part of that.”
These alumni’s banks reap the rewards of a Christian education. The average mid-career salary for the 25 schools is $94,058, which is almost $30,000 per year higher than the nationwide median income for ages 33 to 44.