See the  Web Resources page for further reading

Read the essays in the SSRC Forum on The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates

SSRC Guide: Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates

8. Keeping the Faith

Monks and students in a library, 15th century

Religious Colleges in America

“In a system of higher education as diverse as the one in the United States, there will be a niche for every taste, including those parents who want their children to be taught fundamental religious truths and exposed to traditional standards of moral conduct.” 

Such is the logic behind the intense proliferation of enrolment in evangelical Christian colleges across the U.S. over the last ten to fifteen years. Religious institutions now enroll one in ten college students; since 1990, enrollment has increased at 102 evangelical colleges by 70% (from 135,000 to 230,000 total) compared to 28% at private institutions and 13% at public ones.

Some of these colleges have attracted their share of attention. In 2005, a New Yorker article by Hanna Rosin profiled Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. The college, whose stated mission  is “to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding,” was designed at the behest of two constituencies: home-schooling parents and conservative congressmen. The college is known as the “Evangelical Ivy League” by its president and “Harvard for Home-Schoolers” by its 300 students – 85% of them were home-schooled. 

“In conservative circles…homeschoolers are considered something of an elite, rough around the edges but pure – in their focus, capacity for work, and ideological clarity – a view that helps explain why so many conservative politicians are hiring its graduates,” Rosin writes. Many of them have internships at the White House, and a good number of them go on to work as political operatives in some form.

Colleges such as this one suggest that a sea change has taken place in the intellectual commitments of evangelical Protestantism. Yet writer Alan Wolfe expresses concern that the “mainstreaming” of conservative Christian colleges and universities does not necessarily lead to open-mindedness. “Classes at Patrick Henry may be demanding,” Wolfe writes. “But the students who take them have a depressing tendency to hue to a party line.” “In some ways,” he notes, “the older evangelical colleges that have been willing to open themselves up to the life of the mind are more countercultural than the modern ones that represent intentionally created conservative communities.”

Current studies have still not provided a complete portrait of the challenges and opportunities in evangelical colleges. There is little contemporary research comparing students at denominational colleges with students at secular schools; there is also a dearth of research into non-evangelical faith-based colleges. In short, much more research is needed on this important topic, in order to better assess the role of religious colleges on the landscape of higher education in America.

Further Reading:

Good, J. L. and C. Cartwright. 1998. “Development of Moral Judgment among Undergraduate University Students.” College Student Journal 32(2): 270-276.

Ingram, L. C. 1986. “Sectarian Colleges and Academic Freedom.” Review of Religious Research 27(4): 300-314.

Kuh, G. D. 2004. “Do Environments Matter? A Comparative Analysis of the Impress of Different Types of Colleges and Universities on Character.” Journal of College and Character 2. (Available online:

Pascarella, E. T. and P. T. Terenzini. 2005. How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reisberg, L. 2000. “Campus Witches May Wear Black, But Don’t Look for Hats or Broomsticks.” Chronicle of Higher Education 47(8): A49-A50.

Riley, N. S. 2004. God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Rosin, H. 2005. “God and Country.” The New Yorker 81: 44.