Students seek community of believers

By: G. Jeffery MacDonald

Special to USA TODAY.

Rachel Friesen was on track to graduate debt-free from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs when she made a leap in 2004 that would instead land her about $40,000 in debt on commencement day.

In her junior year; she transferred to Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian college near Los Angeles. Her reason: Christian community.

“At a large university it’s easy to go through your college experience knowing a lot of people but not having deep, meaningful relationships,” Friesen says. But now she’s at ease among like-minded believers, who gather, for instance, in school- organized discipleship groups for prayer, Bible study and talk about “whatever’s going on in life.”  “I’ve been able to have deep relationships,” she says, “and those are the ones you keep.”

In seeking out religious higher education, Friesen has plenty of company. Enrollment has increased 70.6% since 1990, from 135,000 to 230,000, at the 102 evan-gelical schools belonging to the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Over the same period, enrollments at all public and private colleges increased by 12.8% and 28% respectively

The growth marks a turnaround from the 1960s and 70s, when religious colleges struggled to attract enough students, says Alexander Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles. About 120 religious colleges closed between 1960 and 1979, according to data collected by historian Ray Brown at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. By contrast, four religious colleges, including the First Buddhist college, have opened in the USA since 2001. Observers of the trend cite multiple reasons, including relative value in an era in which tuitions have outpaced inflation. Religious denominations help con -tain tuition increases through .subsidies often ranging from $1 million to $3 million a year, CCCU president Bob Andringa says.

But money isn’t the only factor. Students who practice a faith often want to study where their beliefs are respected, and that can be hard to find on secular campuses, says Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America (St. Martin’s Press, 2005).

“There is a sense that the people who dominate the faculties at secular universities do have an antipathy toward traditional religion,” says Riley, deputy editor at The Wall Street Journal. “It’s nice for (students) to go to a place where they don’t have to always be defending their beliefs.”

Parents and grandparents seem to agree. Richard Chewning of Siloam Springs, Ark., pays about $14,000 per year in tuition and other costs (after scholarships) for his granddaughter to attend Cedarville University, a Christian school in Cedarville, Ohio. “The worst form of destruction for a younger person’s world-view is to take it into an environment where it is laughed at and ridiculed,” says Chewning, a retired Baylor University ethicist. An 18-year-old, he says, is “like a hot-house tomato. If you stick them in a humanistically oriented university they’re going to get scorched rather than watered.”

Critics of the way religious groups are treated on campus cite instances such as a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire policy banning resident assistants from holding Bible studies in their dorms. The university said the policy was meant to stop RAs from pressuring students into activities such as partisan politics or religious studies,

but the university suspended the policy on Nov. 30, pending a review.

Secular educators dispute the notion of a climate inhospitable to religion. “We (in secular schools) are highly sensitive to making sure diversity is recognized, and also celebrated and not stepped on,” says Joel Bloom, chairman of the Council on Student Affair at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

In some cases, booming enrollment owe much to working adults who take advantage of satellite campuses. Among the most prolific is Indian Wesleyan University, which in addition to quadrupling its residential student population since 1990, has expanded to operate 11 satellite campuses. Other schools also market to working adults, who theoretically feel safe after many years out of school by returning to a faith-minded setting. Carlton Mitchell, 47, of Kilgore, Texas, run a hardwood-floor refinishing company and considered pursuing a college degree nearby on a campus of the Unversity of Texas-Tyler. Instead, he opte to pay twice as much — about $15,00 per year — to pursue a degree from Le Tourneau Univer-sity an evangelical Christian college in Longview.

“Part of our charge from God is witness about how he gave his son for our sins,” Mitchell says. “Here’s a school where you can witness you’re a Christian, you almost automatically feel at home.”

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