Skip to main content

Faith-Based Options at Colleges and Universities

There are well over 1,000 private, faith-based colleges and universities across the country, representing pretty much every major religion and most Christian denominations. Some of the Christian schools are non-denominational, meaning they're not affiliated with a specific church.

"While I'm a part of a particular Christian academic institution, there are also non-Christian faith-based institutions," says Christian Hoeckley, director of Westmont College's Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts. Westmont is a non-denominational Christian college in California.

"There are Jewish institutions, and more recently some Buddhist institutions. There's the Soka University of America in California that's about 10 years old. So it's a phenomenon that goes beyond the Christian community."

Most faith-based colleges and universities accept students of differing faiths. Many even welcome agnostic and atheist students. A few are gender-specific.

"I think faith-based colleges are seeing growth in applicants and growth in enrollments." Hoeckley says. "To some degree, I suspect it's due to the growth of evangelicalism in America over the last couple of decades, though the schools themselves are improving. The faculty is improving as scholars and teachers, which improves the quality of education at the institutions."

Some schools, like Marquette University in Wisconsin, have always been known for high academic standards. Marquette is a Catholic Jesuit institution, although not all Catholic schools follow Jesuit tradition.

"There are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States," says Robert Blust, dean of admissions at Marquette University. "The Jesuits are probably best known for rigorous academic preparation and for being in urban areas." He says students today are more discerning about their college choices and look for schools that reflect their own beliefs or missions.

"The campus community is becoming increasingly important to students," says Derek Nelson, professor of religion at Thiel College, a Lutheran school in Pennsylvania.

Thiel's enrollment averages between 1,000 and 1,300 students. Of that number, Nelson says that less than 10 percent are actually Lutheran.

"I think that's true of most Lutheran schools, but some in Minnesota and Iowa might be higher," he says. "The plurality is Catholic here, which is a function of the demographic we're drawing from. But it's virtually a smorgasbord of faiths here." At Marquette, Blust says that roughly 58 to 60 percent of the freshman class each year is Catholic. The remainder includes various faiths, and the faculty reflects a similar religious mix.

Hoeckley says that the majority of Westmont's students come from independent, non-denominational churches. The enrollment includes students of Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic faiths. Hoeckley says that students from at least 20 major denominations attend Westmont. "If you get down to the smaller branches of these major traditions, it wouldn't surprise me if we had 30 or 40 different ones represented." That's not counting students who don't profess a faith.

"They know, coming in, that the Christian faith is going to be in conversation with whatever they're learning in class," Hoeckley says, "I teach philosophy, and there are so many ways in which religious belief and philosophical concerns are interacting, that it's hard to keep it out of the classroom."

Some faith-based schools follow specific doctrines exclusively. Schools like Westmont, Thiel and Marquette want students to study other religions too.

"Students come here with lots of different beliefs, and many times the students have never thought, 'Why do I believe this? Why is this an important part of who I am?'" Blust says.

"There's definitely that challenge of, 'Why do you think this way?' as opposed to going to a school that just says, 'This is the way you have to think.'"

Likewise, Nelson notes that the Lutheran tradition was born of questioning religious practices, and students are encouraged to study with an open mind and draw their own conclusions -- things you might expect to be more common at non-denominational schools.

Westmont strives to be an inquisitive community while affirming its historic Christian faith. "That can be a tricky line to walk, and you never know what the outcome will be," Hoeckley says.

"We do have students who, as a result of their education, no longer find the Christian faith tenable. That's not our hope, but sometimes it's what results. Not to risk that, I think would mean clamping down on what's taught or what's talked about, and that's obviously not good for anybody's education."

Most faith-based colleges and universities have core requirements similar to those of secular schools. They just include religious studies as well.

"Every student, regardless of which program they're in at Marquette, is going to be taking similar coursework, but theology and philosophy are required of all students," Blust says. Of the theology courses offered, he says, "They aren't necessarily all western religions. Some are eastern religions. Some are non-Christian religions. There are a lot of different choices for students."

Westmont requires students to take three religious studies courses critiquing theological assumptions and biblical readings. "That's disorienting to some students, as you can imagine. But it's an important part of their growth," Hoeckley says, "We're looking for the union of intellectual and spiritual growth -- even though it can be disorienting."

Although Thiel is a liberal arts institution, the curriculum differs a bit from secular liberal arts schools. Students are required to take a full year of western humanities taught by professors from different disciplines, a class on interpreting Jewish and Christian scriptures, and at least one year of a foreign language.

Another required course is science and our global heritage. "It's extremely interdisciplinary," Nelson says. Global issues are examined through various perspectives. "Several professors team-teach it: a historian, a religious scholar, a biologist, an environmental scientist, a physicist and a philosopher."

Nelson says that Thiel's goal is similar to other liberal arts educations: "The impetus is on developing students as individuals rather than on them becoming the masters of a certain body of education. We hope that will happen too, but it's less a focus than it is at a secular liberal arts school or a larger university. "

Hoeckley says one reason students choose a faith-based education is so they don't have to separate the intellectual and spiritual parts of their lives. "We promote the integration of one's spiritual growth and one's intellectual growth. Those two things should be in conversation with each other and be fully present to each other as they're developing -- as opposed to what can sometimes happen for a religious person where there's a split between their religious life and their intellectual life."