Social Class at Christian Colleges (part 2)

Does socioeconomic class, with vastly less fanfare than gender or race, present equally significant problems for learning communities centered on a Savior in whom there is no difference of class, gender, or race?

As I wrote at the end of yesterday’s post, I was spurred to reflect on this by a Chronicle of Higher Education piece by historian Richard Greenwald, who had been one of the first-generation, largely working class students who now compose one-third of America’s college student population. Noting that more than a quarter of these students last no more than one year, and little more than a tenth graduate within six, Greenwald observed many of them not only lack adequate academic preparation and struggle to balance work and family responsibilities with their collegiate studies, but they lack social capital and are ill-equipped to deal with the uprooting, dislocating effects that are the intended outcomes of a liberal arts education.

This is not to say that first-generation, lower-income, or working class students (separate categories that may overlap, but which I shouldn’t simply lump together) are doomed to failure. Or that they see their college education as an escape from lesser circumstances. My fellow Christian college history department chair and blogger John Fea has written occasionally about coming from a working class background and going into academia — for example, in this lovely reflection on the virtue of gratitude that he first published in 2008.

Benson Great Hall at Bethel University
Benson Great Hall – Bethel University

Yesterday I confessed myself unsure how we (Bethel in particular, Christian colleges in general) compare with other private colleges and universities…

Here, at least, we have some data to work with. They don’t present anything like a full picture of the experience of first-generation, working class, or lower-income students, but they might suggest which colleges and universities do best, first, at drawing such students and, then, at helping them to beat Greenwald’s dismaying odds and graduate in a timely (and cost-efficient, as far as such things go with 21st century higher education) fashion.

Mostly, I want to present this information, not attempt too much analysis. But please feel free to pass along your own observations in the Comments section!

Let’s start with The American Freshman: National Norms for 2011, an annual publication [the 2012 version should be out early next year] from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). It’s based on a survey of over 200,000 first-year students conducted by participants in HERI’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program. Among many other interesting tables, the publication shows the following breakdown of freshmen at three different types of private colleges and universities:

Best estimate of parents’ income Non-sectarian
four-year college
four-year college
Other Religion
four-year college
Less than $25,000 11.7 12.7 15.7
$25,000-$50,000 15.3 16.0 19.0
$50,000-$75,000 17.8 18.2 21.7
$75,000-$100,000 12.9 13.0 13.1
$100,000 or more 42.2 40.2 30.5

If these students’ estimates are reliable, religious (but not Catholic) colleges and universities are the only category of private schools at which a majority of students have parents who make less than $75,000. (According to recent Census data, “upper-middle class” Americans — i.e., those in the 60th to 80th percentiles — now have a mean household income of just over $80,000. “Middle class” is just under $50,000, “lower-middle” just under $30,000.)

It’s also interesting to look at how last year’s first-year students reported their fathers’ occupations, though here the separation isn’t quite so noticeable. Four lines are especially relevant for our purposes:

Father’s occupation Non-sectarian
four-year college
four-year college
Other Religion
four-year college
Skilled trades 6.3 7.1 6.6
Semi-skilled worker 2.2 2.5 3.0
Unskilled laborer 2.7 2.9 3.2
Farmer/rancher 0.5 0.7 1.5

On this basis, religious schools accept a slightly higher share of working class students: 13.2% of first-year students at Catholic schools and 14.3% at those of other religious backgrounds vs. 11.7% at non-sectarian institutions. (There’s a separate table for mothers’ occupations that shows very little variation — at most ±0.2% from average; highest percentage 1.7%.)

Council for Christian Colleges and Universities

However, “Other Religion four-year college” covers a wide variety of institutions, not all evangelical or even Christian. So how do Bethel and the other evangelical members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) stack up against other Christian and church-related schools in recruiting and serving lower-income students?

Let me turn to some of the data used by the magazine Washington Monthly to build its college ranking system, which dispenses with subjective “reputation” scores and objective SAT/ACT and GPA scores for entering students. (I wrote about it earlier this fall.) As one of their three chief factors (research and service round out that list), WM’s editors credit colleges for “enrolling many low-income students and helping them earn degrees.” So first, WM predicts the percentage of a school’s students who earn Pell Grants (the federal government’s primary mechanism for providing aid based on demonstrated financial need), while also (a new factor for 2012) accounting for the “net price” of a year of college (i.e., the “average price that first-time, full-time students who receive financial aid pay for college after subtracting need-based financial aid”).

Here’s how CCCU schools collectively compare to three other groups of religious colleges and universities: those associated with the United Methodist Church (UMC); those covenanting with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); and Roman Catholic schools associated with the Jesuits, the Franciscans, and dioceses. (Each Catholic consortium by itself is too small a set to permit a useful comparison to the larger Protestant groups, hence the clustering. I recognize that the three I selected only scratch the surface of Catholic higher education, but I didn’t have time to go through 250+ schools…)

Median % of
Students Receiving
Pell Grants

Median Net Price
of Attendance







United Methodist



Roman Catholic



The evangelical and Presbyterian networks prove to be very similar (and they share six schools: Belhaven University, College of the Ozarks, King College, Montreat College, Waynesburg University, and Whitworth University), both in terms of having numbers of lower-income students and the net price they charge them. The median Methodist school recruits nearly as many lower-income students, but charges almost 10% more. Catholic schools — as hinted by the HERI results — are considerably more expensive.

Aerial view of College of the Ozarks
College of the Ozarks: billing itself as “Hard Work U,” this conservative Presbyterian school in Missouri discourages students from taking on debt, offers extensive work-study and scholarships, and has a net price of less than $10,000 – Creative Commons (KTrimble)

But this is only the beginning of the WM methodology for social mobility. Their editors point out that getting lower-income students in the door doesn’t mean much if they don’t have a reasonable chance to graduate. For example, East Texas Baptist University is relatively inexpensive (net price: $13,530) and is right around the CCCU median for percentage of Pell Grant recipients (38%), but has only a 36% graduation rate. Because that’s even lower than the 48% predicted by an algorithm that looks at a variety of factors (here’s a detailed explanation), East Texas Baptist’s final social mobility score drops it to the 23rd percentile of baccalaureate colleges.

So, how do CCCU, PCUSA, UMC, and Catholic schools do once expected vs. actual graduation rates are factored in? Here too, Presbyterian (especially) and evangelical schools are most accessible to lower-income students, with their Catholic peers ranking far behind.

Schools are ranked within one of four distinct categories of institutions (national universities, liberal arts colleges, master’s universities, and baccalaureate colleges), so in the following table I’ll show what percentage of each network’s members rank in the top quartile for social mobility, the two middle quartiles, and the bottom quartile:

Top 25%

Middle 50%

Bottom 25%





United Methodist












For the record, Bethel ranks 499th out of 682 master’s universities in the Washington Monthly study on social mobility: it attracts fewer Pell Grant recipients than the median CCCU school (27%) and costs more ($22,874), but it has a slightly higher than expected graduation rate (69% vs. the predicted 67% — at least some credit for which should go to my friend Sam Mulberry and the other faculty and staff who work in Bethel’s excellent academic support center). Bethel’s Pell Grant and net price numbers put it right in the middle of the thirteen members of the more selective Christian College Consortium, but it does less well by comparison to the mostly Lutheran and Catholic members of the Minnesota Private Colleges Council. Bethel has the lowest social mobility score of the six members of that group in the master’s university category (just seven spots behind St. Catherine University). However, it is in the same percentile (26th) in its category as are St. Olaf College and the University of St. Thomas in theirs (liberal arts college and national universities, respectively).

Aerial view of Carleton College
Carleton College – Creative Commons (Dogs1337)

Incidentally, the least socially mobile school on that council is also its one member without even a nominal religious affiliation. 223rd out of 254 liberal arts colleges despite its 93% graduation rate, Carleton College carries a hefty net price of $27,036 even after need-based aid and has only 14% of its students receiving Pell Grants.

<<Read the previous post in this series                   Read the final post in this series>>

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