Surprise! Evangelical Colleges among the Most Politically Conservative in the Country

For once, I thought I’d take some common blogging advice to heart and write a headline for a title instead of anything remotely clever. Some context before we get to the lede:

Newsweek/Daily Beast College Rankings LogoNewsweek/Daily Beast have joined the college rankings racket frenzy, though thankfully they’re taking a slightly quirkier tack than U.S. News and issuing a variety of Top 25’s, including Most/Least Affordable, Most/Least Rigorous, Top Party Colleges, Most Beautiful, Happiest, and Most Stressful. The methodologies are, of course, suspect, but as a way to kill twenty minutes, it’s fun to poke around.

My own employer didn’t make even one of the lists — I actually think Most Beautiful was within reach, except things were rigged to favor schools in warmer, sunnier climes — but a few of Bethel’s sister institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) made different Top 25 lists:

Council for Christian Colleges and Universities

Two non-CCCU Baptist universities — Liberty and Belmont — made the Top 25 Least Affordable category (which measures tuition and other costs, but also availability of financial aid, graduate indebtedness, and alumni salaries), coming in at #21 and #24, respectively, while another (Baylor) was the 4th Most Affordable (thanks to 0% of its students having debt — can this be true?!?).

I’m not sure that any of this is all that significant, nor that the Newsweek/Daily Beast methodologies really permitted smaller private schools like those that compose the CCCU to compete on an equal playing field with the national universities that dominate the rankings.

(Though I’ve become an instant fan of College Prowler, the website that supplied much of the data for this exercise, if only because Bethel scores in the top 15% for “smartest professors.” Though our real strength, apparently, lies in dining: top 5% for Best Quality Food and Best Cafeteria Variety and top 10% for Best Ethnic Options — I highly recommend the stir fry line.)

But then there’s the question of politics… Here are the CCCU schools making the Top 25 Most Conservative list: Grove City College (#2), Dordt College (#5), Oklahoma Christian University (#7), Covenant College (#8), Northwestern College of Minnesota (#9), Louisiana College (#12), Geneva College (#16), Lee University (#17), Biola University (#20), Cedarville University (#22), Wheaton College (#23), Anderson University of South Carolina (#24). (Liberty was #21.)

Go ahead: guess how many made the Top 25 Most Liberal list.

Having half the Newsweek Most Conservative list come from the CCCU seemed significant enough that I took the time to go through College Prowler’s full list of “Most Conservative” rankings (on a 10-point scale, based on student surveys) to see how CCCU schools did. (Perhaps there’s more diversity than comes across on the Newsweek profile, which goes no further than the twenty-five schools named…)

Eighty-three of the council’s 115 members were rated in this category. (It’s not entirely clear, but I suspect that those without a ranking simply didn’t have enough student reviews or surveys to generate a useful sample.) According to College Prowler, the ranking reflects how students who submitted reviews or were surveyed view the diversity of political opinion in the entire student body and their own personal “circle of friends.” Some results:

Prayer Chapel at Biola
Rose of Sharon Prayer Chapel, Biola University – Creative Commons (abraggins)

• On average, CCCU schools scored 7.80 on the ten-point Most Conservative scale, with the median for the entire group of 1166 schools being 7.11. The most conservative school (BYU) was 10.00 (Bob Jones was #3, at 9.34), the most liberal school (Smith College) was a 4.73. (Cal-Berkeley and NYU were both 5.10/10.)

• Three of the top 10 most conservative were in the CCCU (Biola, Grove City, Geneva) and six more cracked the top 25 (Lee, Dordt, California Baptist, Cedarville, Colorado Christian, and our neighbors at Northwestern). (The results of the Newsweek profile were different because it gave extra weight when students described themselves as “Very Conservative” rather than merely “Conservative.”) Twenty-two of the top 50 were in the CCCU, and thirty-five of the top 100 (including #52 Bethel, which was more conservative than the council average, at 8.08).

• If you break the group of 1166 into fifths… All but twenty of the ranked CCCU schools were in the most conservative 20% (including Calvin at #134, Seattle Pacific at #154, and Gordon at #201), with another twelve in the next, slightly less conservative 20% (e.g., North Park at #363 and George Fox at #434).

• That leaves eight CCCU schools that are probably better described as centrist or center-left in politics, according to this admittedly imperfect study: Anderson University of Indiana (#490, 7.21), Fresno Pacific (#494, 7.21), Whitworth (#530, 7.18), Warner Pacific (#555, 7.14), Eastern Nazarene (#599), Trinity Christian College (#613, 7.11 — not to be confused with Trinity International, the E-Free school, which wasn’t ranked), Eastern Mennonite (#706, 7.04), and Eastern University (#747, 6.99).

• Not one shows up in the most liberal tier. And of all the CCCU schools ranked (and my suspicion is that the vast majority of those that had too few student rankings to be included would fall along the more conservative side of the spectrum), only Trinity Christian, Eastern Mennonite, and Eastern rated as more liberal than conservative.

None of this is surprising, but at the same time, let’s state it clearly: There is no reason that evangelical college student bodies should be so much more conservative than the American norm.

I don’t mean to imply that evangelical colleges shouldn’t attract students who will vote for Romney/Ryan and/or admire Ron Paul. Indeed, I tend to be in the camp that wishes college campuses (and faculties) were more hospitable to conservatives. But it’s important to affirm that Christians might reasonably occupy virtually any position on the political spectrum (and to remind ourselves that every political ideology is innately flawed and ought never be confused with the Gospel). After all, one-third of young evangelicals voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and nearly half classified themselves that year as “liberal” on issues like health care and poverty, according to an Economist story on this trend. Evangelicals might still be more conservative than the general public, but the movement — contrary to the impression created by the Newsweek and College Prowler ratings — is no monolith.

More importantly for me as a Christian college professor (and someone who researches such models of higher education)… I believe that a Christian liberal arts education has the power to transform hearts and minds, but only if students encounter a wide variety of perspectives. We professors (whatever our own politics) strive to do that in our courses, but students spend far more time with each other than with faculty. So I wonder if the broadening and deepening that we associate with a liberal arts education is inhibited when a student body resembles the Republican Party at study.

For those of you who attend(ed) or work at evangelical colleges… Do the Newsweek and College Prowler ratings match your impressions of political diversity on campus? If so, should we be troubled that CCCU student bodies seem so much more conservative than others?

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