Enrollment Rate of Evangelical Schools Increases

( [email protected] ) Dec 01, 2003 03:23 PM EST

Nationally, evangelical colleges and universities are receiving broader acceptance as they are looked favorable in the eyes of academic mainstream. Especially in Southern California, enrollments are increasing and the percentage of students applying to graduate school is increasing. Evangelical scholars are shown to bring greater effect in the academic mainstream as they receive job offers from Ivy League schools.

These scholars "are being seen more as peers than would have been the case 20 years ago," said Alexander W. Astin, director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. And many of the schools themselves are trying "to pursue academic excellence in traditional terms, by which I mean recruiting students with higher SAT scores and faculty who are known scholars in their fields."

According to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the nation's largest umbrella organization for evangelical undergraduate institutions, enrollment at evangelical schools increased 26.6% from 1997 to 2002, to 215,593.

The growth rate is most dramatic in Southern California. Azusa Pacific University in the San Gabriel Valley, is the second-largest of the council's schools, with 8,200 students. Biola University of La Mirada, with an enrollment of 5,300, appears to have moved up to fourth-largest this fall.

Although evangelical schools account for only 3.1% of students in four-year colleges in California and 2.2% nationally, the schools' enrollment growth has exeeded that of public and other private institutions.

LA Times explains the rising stature of evangelical schools come from growing attention to diversity in academia, not only to ethnic and racial minorities but also to evangelical thinkers.

Also parents and students are looking for colleges that hold conservative moral values. For example, Wheaton College in Illinois, one of the most prestigious of the evagelical liberal arts colleges, is receiving much attention because of its strong emphasis on conservative moral values. It was recently that the school allowed to hold its first social dance since the school was founded in 1860.

Current students and recent graduates often say they were attracted by the schools' blend of religious and ethical values with scholarship and the opportunities they could have for close relationships with professors.

Melissa Durkee, a 25-year-old Westmont graduate now in her third year at Yale Law School, described the friendly atmosphere of Westmont:

"a culture that encouraged professors to play a mentoring role and really have a deep presence in their students' lives. It wasn't a sterile, removed, academic distance," said Durkee.

Another attraction is the price. According to the council survey, tuition averages $14,730, nearly $5,000 less than the average tuition of other U.S. private colleges and universities, without considering scholarships.

But many academics remain concerned that the schools bend their instruction to conform with religious doctrine, stifling intellectual inquiry. They note that the colleges commonly require faculty members to make faith pledges attesting to their Christian religious beliefs and refuse to hire homosexuals.

Evangelical Christianity emphasizes “born-again” religious conversions, the central importance of Scripture, and a need to spread the Gospel.

Most were established between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century, often by believers who objected to the secularization of American society.

The evangelical schools are mostly affiliated Protestant churches, denominations that are conservative theologically and often politically. The better evangelical schools provide broader curriculums including both the humanities and the natural sciences fields. But still they are much more restrictive in faculty hiring and other campus policies than the nation’s leading Catholic or mainline Protestant universities.

"Sex and science are difficult issues for them to deal with in terms of mainstream educational thought," said Martin D. Snyder, director of planning and development for the American Assn. of University Professors.

By various standards, these schools are rising in academic stature narrowing a gap between them and other private schools. . More graduates of evangelical institutions are planning to attend, or are heading directly to, graduate schools. Evangelical scholars are offered positions in the Ivy League schools.

According to figures from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the percentage of seniors at their member schools planning to attend graduate school jumped from 69.7% in 1994 to 79.6% last year. At other U.S. liberal arts colleges over the same period, the proportion rose by about two percentage points, to 82.8%.

Scholars associated with evangelical schools are making headway, even in the Ivy Leagues.

Yale University's divinity school in the last five years has recruited four faculty members with evangelical ties, including Miroslav Volf, a leading expert on Christian doctrine hired away from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Evangelical philosophers have won notice in such areas as ethics, metaphysics and epistemology (the study of knowledge). Younger scholars have made inroads in the fields of psychology and sociology.

"Christian reflection is an accepted partner," in large part because of the work of evangelical scholars in philosophy, said John E. Hare, a leading evangelical philosopher who joined Yale's faculty this year.

Likewise, evangelical historians have been recognized for religion-related work. Leaders such as Mark A. Noll, a historian at Wheaton College in Illinois and his book "America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln" are gaining reputation from the mainstream.

Another evangelical scholar, Notre Dame's George Marsden, drew praise for his new book, "Jonathan Edwards: A Life," about the Puritan preacher and theologian.

At Azusa Pacific and at other evangelical schools, however, the atmosphere and course content sometimes are very different from those of secular institutions.

Azusa Pacific requires undergraduates to attend each of three weekly chapel programs. They also must participate every year in a community service "ministry," such as tutoring elementary school students or building houses with Habitat for Humanity.Classes often begin with a prayer, and smoking is banned on campus, such as about Holocaust.

For example, an instructor, Phil Shahbaz, chose a topic on Holocaust for a required freshman personal development course at the beginning of the semester. Holocaust "is a huge thing to talk about, because it happened to one of the most important people groups in the Bible, the Jews. OK? And the Jews," he said, "are not, are not taught to forgive. They don't forgive, and you have forgiveness inside your heart. That's what you've been taught to do as a Christian.”

"My intention … was not to say, 'This is how Jews are.' That's like the complete opposite of what we're trying to do," Shahbaz said.

Some scholars who have studied religious schools still are very critical of the narrow intellectual and social perspective of the evangelical schools. While he admires the way evangelical schools try to develop students' character and spirituality, Larry Braskamp, a professor of education at Loyola University in Chicago, said, "They're not as integrated into the mainstream of society, and they don't mix a lot with other backgrounds, so sometimes I think they carry stereotypes with them."

Still a great number of students are attracted to the atmosphere of the schools that other secular campuses don’t offer.

Meehan Dellar, a freshman at Azusa Pacific said, "It's like one big family. Everybody is so accepting and loving. You are put in a classroom with teachers who pray before classes and who share the same passion for serving Christ that you do."