The Challenge of Ranking Christian Colleges

It’s about as unlikely as a question as you’re going to see over an article in The Atlantic: “Is it possible to judge a school’s ability to encourage deeper religious faith?” But that’s what appeared this morning above a piece by freelance writer Ruth Graham, who started by confessing that she sometimes wonders

Ruth Grahamwhether my alma mater, the top evangelical college in the country, would consider me a successful graduate. I’m gainfully employed and satisfied with my life, but I no longer consider myself an evangelical Christian. I’m happy with my Wheaton College education, but would Wheaton be happy with me if it could look into my heart? Would prospective students and their parents be scared off by my story?

She notes that while evangelical schools like Wheaton (and my employer, Bethel University) enroll over 400,000 students, Catholic schools account for another 750,000, and religious institutions as a whole enroll almost one in ten American undergraduates, “college rankings that attempt to make serious judgments about the faith environment at various schools are surprisingly scarce…. few list-makers make any attempt to quantify the kind of things that devout high-school students and their parents look for in an institution of higher learning: things like the faith of professors and fellow students, the commitment to students’ spiritual growth, and the strength of campus ministries.”

While some such attempts exist (Graham mentions lists by First Things magazine, historian Allen Guelzo, and art historian Rondall Reynoso), she ultimately concludes that such rankings might be exercises in futility:

Matters of faith and spiritual thriving are not as quantifiable as SAT scores and classroom size. They are even more subjective than fuzzier things like academic reputation. Christians wrestle with other Christians all the time about who is practicing Christianity correctly, for better and for worse. If we didn’t, there would be one big book of Best Churches in America—an absurd idea to anyone who has loved a church their family would hate, or vice versa.

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College
Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College – Creative Commons (Liscobeck)

Even as I’ve periodically parsed college ranking systems with a particular eye to how Christian colleges fare, I’ve increasingly come to think that any such evaluation is (if not fraudulent) doomed to failure. Perhaps “Matters of faith and spiritual thriving” are less quantifiable (I feel like I’ve said a million times this year alone that the most important factors in education are likely to be the least measurable), but I’m not sure this is unique to Christian or other religious colleges.

Take Carleton College, one of Bethel’s peers among Minnesota private colleges and highly ranked by almost every system that exists. Despite being as secular a school as can be imagined, it nonetheless seeks after a kind of thriving that is not easy to quantify. How shall we measure how close it comes to realizing its stated aspiration: “to prepare students to lead lives of learning that are broadly rewarding, professionally satisfying, and of service to humanity”? How would we verify or falsify that Carleton grads “lead lives of learning” or “service to humanity”? Just how broadly rewarding or satisfying can those lives be and still be considered evidence of a successful Carleton education?

Should Carleton’s leadership be concerned that, according to, a dismal 43% of its graduates say they work, at mid-career, in a job that “makes the world a better place”? That’s the same system that ranks Carleton the #33 college in the nation, since most of its alumni make $107,000 or more at mid-career. Bethel alumni, for the record, earn 40% less at the same point in their career, but nearly 70% of them think their jobs are meaningful, a measure by which — as I’ve pointed out — Christian colleges generally do very well.

4 thoughts on “The Challenge of Ranking Christian Colleges

  1. Chris,

    Good article.Glad I ran across it. I do think there is value in rankings but they are certainly just a starting point and not a be all end all as they are for some. As I wrote in the methodology section of the Faith on View rankings. “It should be understood that these rankings are meant to rank colleges that are serious about their Christian commitment, what some may call Christo-centric institutions. There is no way to quantify the spiritual commitment or health of an institution. So, these rankings do not even try.”

    The article pulled some quotes out of what I wrote to Ruth in response to her questions but I thik a full paragraph of context may be helpful.

    “If I had a magic wand I would love to be able to judge the depth and profundity of a college’s impact on a student throughout his or her life. I’m a bit anachronistic and don’t believe that an education is primarily about job training. I believe a college is about helping a student to live a better life. Employability is certainly a part of that but it is not the sum total. I would rather send my children to a college that will help them to thrive throughout their life than to one that will only help them to get a good job. Of course, a school that can do both is the preference. I will say that for me part of thriving is certainly spiritual. I do think that there is, at times, a real difference in Christian culture and authentic Christianity. There are some schools in the ranking that I know are extremely unhealthy spiritually. If I had the magic wand I would love to be able to quantify the spiritual health of the institution and the impact they have on student thriving over the course of students’ lives.”

    Ithink despite believing that rankings can be a useful tool we aren’t really that far appart.

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