A Word About College

I entered a rather interesting fray on Facebook yesterday after posting some thoughts about Liberty University.  The long and short of it was that I haven’t been very impressed by the school in the past and would rather see students looking for a Christian college go elsewhere.  Responses were varied, with some frustrated that I would make such a statement while others were heartily in agreement.  A few current and former Liberty students also contacted me to defend their school.  Other parts of the discussion focused on the idea of the Christian college itself and/or the merits of–as one person put it–[gasp] the non-Christian college.

While Providence, parents, students, and the pocketbook have a much bigger say in the choice of college than me, I do feel it was appropriate to share  in this area because of my time as a youth pastor and increasingly involvement in the field of Christian higher education.

A few more thoughts after reflecting on the conversation(s):

  • I believe in Christian colleges, or, as we in the “biz” like the call them, “Christian liberal arts institutions.”  When done well, they can provide an excellent space for young Christian believers to move from childhood to adulthood in a challenging yet affirming way.  Though there is the danger of schools being either too theologically protective and safe (i.e. indoctrinating) or too progressive and challenging under the guise of safety (i.e. misleading), many schools do a great job with this.  I feel that my alma mater Houghton College is one of these schools, as is my current employer Northwest University.  Another choice would be Wheaton College outside of Chicago.
  • Though all schools (Christian or not) have some responsibility to guard their students (the old in loco parentis), some schools go too far in doing so.  As one friend noted, adolescence is already too long as it is.  Do we really need colleges treating young adults like junior highers?  While there need to be some bounds of safety within a Christian community (that can be unfortunately lacking at some public institutions), these need to be of the common sense variety.  For instance: there is a big difference between banning drinking on campus and fining students for not cleaning their rooms.  Or requiring every student to take an introductory theology class vs. instilling a mandatory curfew on nights and weekends.  In other words, schools need to ask themselves whether their rules are motivated out of a tradition and fear OR a desire to see students grow up in a real and complex world.
  • Christian colleges come in all shapes and sizes.  To have heard a little bit about one, or even to have gone to one, does not exhaust the variety and richness that is the scope of American Christian undergraduate institutions.  There are lots of different people out there as well.  I can imagine lots of reasons people might choose to go to a lot of different schools.  There are some people that need to be challenged more, and some that may have more growing up to do and need to be encouraged in different ways.  My own preference: to see students that want a Christian undergraduate experience to be at a place that is “safe” yet challenging and will help further their growth as a person, believer, and product member of society who integrate their faith in all they do.  But, at the end of the day, I do concede that college is what you make it: you can have a horrible experience at a great school or a great experience at a horrible school.
  • I’m not foolish enough to think that every college-bound believer needs to attend a Christian college.  They can be very expensive…and at a certain point, I’m not sure how much the “experience” is really worth.  There can be a certain elitism or even selfishness in spending so much money on yourself…if it is just for yourself.  Moreover, I believe that Christians do have a place in the public sphere.  This oughtn’t to always begin AFTER college, either.  As a former student of mine (and graduate of  a non-Christian college) rightly noted, there are a lot of opportunities to grow and serve and be a witness to Christ at these institutions as well.  Groups like Intervarsity or Chi Alpha do a great job working with and encouraging students all over the country, and as a youth pastor I value their presence and continued ministry.
  • I’d also like to add that youth pastors ought  to work with students and parents as they are making these decisions in their junior and senior years of high school.  I didn’t always do a great job at this, but am increasingly convinced it can be a vital part of twelfth grade ministry and beyond: advising students not only what school they will attend but how to prepare for it, what their expectations are, and what dialogue partners they will have about their experiences.  Important stuff.