Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Atheist and ‘Nones’ (the fastest growing segment of the US population according to Pew). These are the religious affiliations of my client base this past application season. What I learned from my students this year is this:
Asking the question, 'What makes a college a good fit’ vis a vis a student's religious background is really not that different from taking into account their artistic, academic or athletic interests. Just as I wouldn't advise a non-reader to apply to St John's College in New Mexico, an ardent follower of Christopher Hitchens probably should not have Ohio's Cedarville University on their college list. Fortunately, the parameters are easy enough to ascertain.
If you can't tour a college, a visit to a school's homepage will tell you most of what you need to know about the religious landscape. The Words ‘Christ Centered’ or ‘Faith-based' obviously indicate a high level of religiosity. What does this mean in practice? At schools like George Fox, Pepperdine and Whitworth, attending chapel is required--and monitored. Alcohol is banned. Professors are vetted for faith and often lead prayers before exams. Students who have done their research won't be surprised that the application for admission to faith-based schools includes questions related to bible verses or about an applicant's own history with faith and belief.
There are also church-affiliated colleges. On their websites, you will find words like ‘Collaboration, Tolerance and Intercultural Communication’ or 'Competence, Conscience and Compassion' demonstrating a religiously-informed education within an inclusive atmosphere. Chapman University, for example, with historic ties to the Disciples of Christ, encourages the spiritual health of its students through its All Faiths Chapel--which in just one month hosted Langar (Sikh), Ecumenical Good Friday, and Mindfulness events. The Campus Ministry at Georgetown, the oldest Jesuit college in the US, supports a wide variety of chaplaincies and affiliations from Muslim to Hindu to Humanist/None/Unaffiliated. Soka University, founded on the Buddhist principles of peace, human rights and the sanctity of life, is actually non-sectarian and does not have a place of worship on campus.
Students need to understand the ethos and values of their potential colleges, whether written down in the website or not. Ask questions! Are dorms co-ed by building, floor or suite? What are the taboos on smoking, drinking, partying, revealing clothing, shopping on Sunday. Is evangelism required? Is there an honor code and what are the consequences for breaking it? Check out the events page and what merchandise is sold at the bookstore. Look up the faculty: Are they experts in their field?
The requirements for any major are roughly equivalent whether at a religious or secular school. The devil, of course, is in the details. Future accountants at Biola, for example, will struggle with the same calculus and finance courses as accounting majors at public universities across the country. But Biola also requires 30 hours of Bible and related courses which is, essentially, minoring in religion. At Cedarville, minoring in bible studies is actually mandatory for all students. Other religiously-affiliated colleges have looser requirements. At Notre Dame or USD, the 9 hours of required religion courses could be taken on The Bible but also could be HIV/AIDS and Christian Ethics or Rich, Poor and War or Religious Peacebuilding.
For students interested in expanding upon their faith, the large number of required religion courses at Christian colleges won't be an issue. For others, the 'creationist approach to scientific research' could present something of a dilemma.
Religious background aside, analyzing any college's core requirements along with the depth and breadth and worldview of available courses is critical to finding a good academic fit. One thought experiment is this: if you are majoring in accounting, and you devote 30 units (almost 2 semesters) to religion, what accounting courses aren’t you taking that you might need for employment or grad school. The cost of college is high. Bible study groups can be found at a meetup, your neighbor’s house or your local church--for free. But, how easily accessible is Accounting for Non-Profits or International Financial Reporting or a Fraud Examination class? How you spend your class time over four years matters. A lot.
One final thought. There was no discernible pattern to developing a college list for my religiously diverse clients.
The Hindu was entirely unconcerned about applying to a Catholic university. The requirement to attend chapel and religion classes was a deal breaker for one Christian. The atheist drew the line at colleges with a bell tower. And, one of the many ‘Nones’ in my applicant pool was okay with a dry campus. Exploring and analyzing the choices available to my clients was an absolute blast. But then, it always is...Good luck to the high school Class of 2017!