Recommended colleges for traditional and religious students

As a secondary school teacher, I am helping my students make the first big transition of their lives from home to college. Few students, surprisingly, ever solicit my advice about which colleges I recommend, and even fewer apply to those colleges, let alone enroll. Year after year, I observe students, who have undergone classical Christian schooling, make decisions about higher education that strike me as inconsistent or contrary to their formation. Why? The major influencers in the decision-making are regional insularity, alumni bias, and, most disconcertingly, status anxiety. At secondary schools with less affluent families, I suspect economic security would factor heavily.

Because education is a formative project, I exhort my students to choose a college that will contribute to human flourishing (eudaimonia), mindful that institutions shape or misshape the person. Since my students already possess a consumerist mentality, which fixates on how a college develops “marketability” for the workforce, I encourage a different set of questions for their college search: What kind of human being is this college aiming for? How does this college cultivate humanity? What is the mission of this college, and are its stakeholders (students, faculty, administration, board, alumni) genuinely mission-focused? Put differently, start with the end (telos) of a college and then work backwards. At Wheaton College, for example, everything is done for the sake of making wise, loving, and faithful disciples in the kingdom of God. At Hillsdale College, by contrast, everything is done for the sake of making prudent, knowledgeable, and engaged citizens in the American republic. In the Middle Ages, when universities were first established, the end was piety. In the 19th century, the end was gentlemanliness. Nowadays, the end is economic advancement.

Traditional educators have a short list of praiseworthy colleges. For the undergraduate student, I favor a small liberal arts college with its teaching priority, core curriculum, and integrated community over a large public or private university with its research priority, specialized curriculum, and ghettoized community. Whereas the liberal arts college seeks to liberate the soul of a human being through habituation in various arts (or disciplines), the university strives to equip the the worker for a competitive market. It is the difference between a human enterprise and professional training. Admittedly, some universities have excellent liberal arts programs. Public universities, I am afraid, are at the whim of the state; political influence usually harms more than it helps.

My college recommendations are below with opinions about the respective advantages and drawbacks.

SECULAR (religious or traditional-friendly)

  • St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD & Santa Fe, NM). Advantages: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy. Drawbacks: secularism, substance abuse.
  • University of Chicago (Chicago, IL). Advantages: The Core, location. Disadvantages: left-of-center politics, secularism.
  • Columbia University – Columbia College (New York City, NY). Advantage: The Core Curriculum. Drawback: location.
  • Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, MI). Advantages: civic education, Western civilization curriculum. Drawbacks: location, ring-wing politics.
  • St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN). Advantage: The Great Conversation. Drawback: location.

PROTESTANT

  • Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). Advantages: top Christian scholars, academic rigor and excellence, integration of faith & learning, location.
  • Baylor University – Honors College (Waco, TX). Advantages: top Christian scholars, University ScholarsGreat Texts. Drawback: location.
  • Biola University – Torrey Honors Institute (La Mirada, CA). Advantages: great books program, integration of faith & learning.
  • Samford University (Birmingham, AL). Advantage: University Fellows Program.
  • Eastern University – Templeton Honors College (St. Davids, PA). Advantage: great books program, seminary pedagogy, integration of faith & learning. Drawback: location.

While I am not a Catholic, I applaud the culture of learning at the colleges below.

CATHOLIC

  • Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrimack, NH). Advantage: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy, integration of faith & learning.
  • Thomas Aquinas College (Santa Paula, CA). Advantage: great books curriculum, seminar pedagogy, integration of faith & learning.
  • University of Dallas (Irving, TX). Advantage: Western civilization curriculum. Drawback: campus, location.
  • Christendom College (Front Royal, VA). Advantage: Western civilization curriculum, integration of faith & learning.

If I failed to mention a college that you think meets my criteria, then please leave a comment with the suggestion.

COLLEGE GUIDES

  • Colleges That Change Lives (CTCL)
  • Loren Pope, Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges
  • Loren Pope, Looking Beyond the Ivy League: Finding the College That’s Right For You
  • John Zmirak (editor), Choosing the Right College: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known InstitutionsAll-American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith
  • Howard Greene & Matthew W. Greene, The Hidden Ives: 63 of America’s Top Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities 
  • Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

BOOKS

Visions of Higher Education

  • Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (written by a professor of humanities at Columbia University)
  • Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College
  • Todd C. Ream & Perry L. Glanzer, The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University
  • John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University
  • James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

Crisises in Higher Education

  • William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (written by a former Yale University professor)
  • Anthony T. Kronan, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (written by a professor of law and former Dean of the Law School at Yale University)
  • Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (written by a professor of computer science and former Dean of Harvard College)
  • Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
  • C. John Sommerville, The Decline of the Secular University
  • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Soul
  • Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education
  • Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
  • Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
  • Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind
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5 thoughts on “Recommended colleges for traditional and religious students

    • Covenant College is located in Lookout Mountain, GA. A Christian student can go there and receive a good education. I did not include Covenant on my list for two reasons: (1) it does not match the academic rigor and excellence of the other Christian liberal arts colleges that I highlighted and (2) it belongs to a denomination (Presbyterian Church of America), which means there is a superintending theology (Reformed Christianity). If you are a Presbyterian, Covenant makes sense. But I generally favor Christian colleges that represents a spectrum of ecclesial traditions within Protestantism.

  1. Could you elaborate on the notes on “location”? That is, what do you think goes into making a location advantageous or disadvantageous? Thanks for the post – very helpful.

    • Any remarks about location reflect my own idiosyncrasies and preferences; they should not dissuade a student from applying to those colleges. For example, if a student expresses an interest in the Midwest region, I personally would favor the urban location of Wheaton over the rural location of Hillsdale because Chicago has offerings of culture and arts that are absent in Hillsdale, Michigan.

  2. Thanks for mentioning the University of Dallas, Christopher. Along with its Classically-oriented Core Curriculum at the undergraduate level, the University of Dallas has just instituted a Classical Education Graduate Program for teachers seeking to dive deeper into the Trivium and Quadrivium. There is such a great need to continually foster the growth of Classical education in the United States.

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