Are These the Best Christian Colleges and Universities?

My friend Christian Collins Winn must have had a maliciously gleeful twinkle in his eye when he posted this link on my Facebook page yesterday, with the caption “Fodder for the PS…”

Yes, I’ve managed to go about a year without analyzing such nonsense, but Christian knew that I couldn’t possibly avoid bait as tempting as a list of the “Best Christian Colleges and Universities.” The full list includes fifty schools; here’s the top 10:

  1. 2015 Best Christian Colleges and Universities logoValparaiso
  2. Samford
  3. Union
  4. Pepperdine
  5. Whitworth
  6. Augsburg
  7. Belmont
  8. Pacific Lutheran
  9. Lipscomb
  10. Gustavus Adolphus

I want to think highly of any system that ranks my employer (#11) ahead of Wheaton, Calvin, and Baylor and omits entirely a would-be “Protestant Notre Dame.” But there are obvious problems with this list:

• It purports to list the fifty best “Christian” colleges and universities, but doesn’t include a single Roman Catholic institution. Now, that’s not entirely surprising: I’m as guilty as anyone of writing about “Christian higher education” as if it’s largely a Protestant endeavor. And College Choice actually has a separate “Best Catholic Colleges and Universities” list.

What would happen if you merged the two lists? College Choice doesn’t provide a single score that would allow easy collation. However, we can get a hint by creating a new top 10 composed of the Catholic and “Christian” schools that fare best in the website’s ranking of Midwestern regional universities(I’ll put the Protestant names in italics)

  1. Creighton
  2. Valparaiso
  3. John Carroll
  4. Xavier
  5. Rockhurst
  6. Detroit Mercy
  7. Dominican
  8. Ursuline
  9. St. Catherine
  10. Augsburg

• Despite excluding Catholic options that, I suspect, would push out the majority of a Protestant top 50, the “Best Christian” list does include numerous mainline-related colleges and universities that don’t normally get clustered together with their more theologically conservative cousins.

But “Christian college” isn’t even a descriptor that most of these schools would use. The ELCA representatives would no doubt prefer something like “college of the church.” (See, for example, how Wartburg College presents its Lutheran identity.) And if that’s the definition of “Christian” here, then why aren’t schools related to the United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ in the mix? (By my count, four such institutions crack the Midwestern top 20.)

Old Main, Augsburg College
Old Main at #5 Augsburg College in Minneapolis – Creative Commons (Elkman)

And how on Earth can Augsburg and Gustavus Adolphus rank in the top 10 of a group that doesn’t even include fellow Minnesota Lutheran college St. Olaf, which is #50 in the same website’s list of National Liberal Arts Colleges?

• There are notable evangelical absences as well: Gordon, Taylor, Biola, Azusa Pacific, and Asbury to name but five. But it’s possible that they’re overvalued by other systems and just didn’t stack up in this methodology. So let’s turn to that important question: Just how does College Choice determine which are the best Christian colleges and universities? Here’s how it’s explained:

Our 2015 Rankings of the Best Christian Colleges and Universities are based exclusively on factors actual college freshmen said were most important to their college decision. According to the most recent nationwide survey published by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, these factors include academic reputation, financial aid offerings, overall cost, and success of graduates in the post-college job market. Each of these factors were weighted equally in our ranking and data was derived from a variety of publicly available sources, including U.S. News & World Report, the National Center for Education Statistics, and PayScale .

Right off the bat, it’s worth noting that this is the same explanation given for the other lists at the website. There’s no distinctively “Christian” criterion here. And while it’s exceedingly hard to figure something like religious life or spiritual development into these systems, such factors are obviously important to most prospective students who will click on a “Best Christian” list rather than rely on, say, geography to narrow their options.

That said… To a degree, I think its designers are on the right track in choosing criteria that align with what actual first-year students say matters to them. We can make snarky comments here about the blind leading the blind, but let’s treat these rankings for what they are: not objective assessments of institutional effectiveness in fulfilling their stated mission (e.g., by encouraging student learning), but tools that help young adults (and their advisors) discern that nebulous concept of college “fit.” If academic reputation, financial aid, cost, and jobs are the four factors principally driving their choice of colleges, wouldn’t making those factors the criteria for a college ranking system at least allow students to make a more informed decision?

And the Higher Education Research Institute has been asking such questions of college freshmen for fifty years now. According to HERI’s most recent The American Freshman report, here are the ten reasons most often deemed “very important” by respondents as they thought about their college choice: (here I’ll give the overall result, plus the one for students attending “other religious” four-year private colleges, the category that aligns most closely with the “Best Christian” list)

Reason

All
Institutions

Other Religious

This college has a very good academic reputation

65.4%

63.1%

This college’s graduates get good jobs

53.4%

52.5%

I was offered financial assistance

46.9%

67.0%

The cost of attending this college

44.9%

37.8%

This college has a good reputation for its social activities

42.8%

42.5%

A visit to this campus

42.4%

54.2%

I wanted to go to a school about the size of this college

36.6%

52.3%

This college’s graduates gain admission to top graduate/professional schools

32.9%

30.7%

The percentage of students that graduate from this college

31.1%

37.0%

I wanted to live near home

20.7%

18.7%

Let’s note first that college rankings don’t show up in the list above. According to HERI, less than 20% of freshmen surveyed listed national magazines or websites as having played a significant role in their decision.

But for what it’s worth, it seems like College Choice is reasonably justified (according to its logic) in picking the four criteria it did. I do wonder why you’d allocate 25% each to net cost and financial aid awarded, since the latter affects the former. But especially for students looking at these schools, aid packages weigh heavily in the scales. Anyway, it helps explain why certain schools fare better than you might expect with College Choice: #10 Gustavus Adolphus, for example, gives an average of $23,000 in financial aid, and #17 Mississippi College and #18 Harding have net prices of around $15,000. Conversely, I’m sure these factors hurt better-known schools like #30 Westmont (the only one of the fifty with a net price topping $30,000) and #38 Calvin College (average aid award just under $13,000).

Calvin College Chapel
Calvin College Chapel – Creative Commons (Ejd24)

Frankly, Calvin’s ranking by itself is enough to make me question the whole system. Especially considering that a quarter of the points come from academic reputation.

Now, I’m on record as despising this particular criterion — which College Choice seems to have derived from the academic “peer reputation” score produced by U.S. News. I think this is a patently absurd thing to ask. The provost even at the Christian college two miles down the street from us really has no idea the quality of teaching, research, academic support, etc. at Bethel; far less one who works a thousand miles away and has never so much as set foot on our campus. At best, such a “peer” is going on name recognition — assuming she doesn’t confuse us with one of the other Bethels…

But having (for the purposes of this analysis) sold out to the student-as-consumer mentality prevailing in this methodology, I have to acknowledge that students at least claim that academic reputation (not, y’know, academic quality) is an important factor — the most important factor, across all institutions and in most categories.

So fine, let’s go there. Try to match the Christian college to its academic reputation score:

1. Calvin a. 75
2. Malone b. 69
3. Mississippi College c. 65
4. Union d. 61
5. Wheaton e. 54

Chew on that for a second… I’ll give the answer after briefly dealing with the fourth College Choice criterion: early career salary data from Payscale.com, which no doubt helped push Valparaiso (whose average graduate starts at $48,800) to the top of this particular pile. I’ve blogged about this dataset before and so don’t have much more to add. Even if I could trust the self-reporting of salaries by alumni and get past the wide variation in sample sizes, I think five-year salary or even Payscale’s “return on investment” calculation is more useful than looking at what grads are paid their first year out of college. But that might not be how eighteen year olds and their parents see the world.

Okay, back to academic reputation. Here are the five matches from that table above:

1e, 2b, 3d, 4a, 5c

Miller Tower, Union University
Miller Tower at #3 Union University – Creative Commons (Sweetmoose6)

Yes, Calvin College was in the bottom half of this top 50 for academic reputation, scoring only 54 out of 100. (#2 Samford had the best reputation score in this group: 90. #1 Valparaiso was second, with 86/100.) I’ve spent twelve years now participating in and researching Christian higher ed… It’s simply mind-boggling that a college of Calvin’s obvious academic caliber would be viewed so poorly.

For contrast… when The Chronicle of Higher Education attempted its own version of a “reputation” score — based on how schools viewed their peers and aspirants — Calvin had the third highest score among members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, behind only Wheaton and Seattle Pacific. Union University (which scored over twenty points higher on reputation for College Choice and ended up its third best Christian college) was nearly 100 slots behind Calvin in those national rankings. That was just three years ago; I highly doubt reputations can change that fast…

• So even if you go with those four criteria, I think there’s plenty of room for critique. But I’m also struck that the HERI freshmen survey suggests that other criteria didn’t rank far behind the four used by College Choice. Shouldn’t “good reputation for social activities” (very important for 43%) be weighted at least as much as net cost (very important for 45%)? I’m not going to do the calculations, but the Daily Beast rankings — based on student polling — for student life might be used here.

Finally, note that about three in eight students attending “other religious” private colleges cited the school’s graduation rate as being an important factor in their decision. While several of the College Choice top 10 for Christian colleges did very well by this count (Gustavus Adolphus, Pepperdine, Whitworth), students at Lipscomb, Augsburg, and Samford have less than a 50-50 shot of graduating within four years and Union was just over that threshold.


2 thoughts on “Are These the Best Christian Colleges and Universities?

  1. Don’t you think the financial situation and academic freedom issues that became an international story at the end of the Byker administration were sufficient black eyes on Calvin’s reputation to explain the low reputation score? Barring further problems like these, I’d expect it to be short lived.

    1. That’s probably fair, Dan. The problems to which you alluded did receive a lot of attention (and not just in the Christian college world). It would be interesting to go back a few years in the U.S. News reports to see if there was any movement around 2012-2013…

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