As public higher education institutions in Florida and across the nation gird for another year of devilishly tight budgets and talk of limited student access, prospects for one group of schools are downright heavenly: evangelical Christian colleges and universities.
Between 1990 and 1999, enrollment grew by 7 percent at all colleges and universities, and 4.3 percent at public schools, according to the most recent federal data. But during the same period, enrollment rose by 17.1 percent at private schools, and 16.8 percent at religion-affiliated schools.
Some of the latter are members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which says enrollment at its member schools grew by nearly 42 percent during the last decade. The council represents 107 small evangelical liberal arts schools that had 215,593 students in fall 2002.
Between 1997 and 2002, enrollment grew by 26.6 percent at these schools, the council says, while federal estimates are that private and public four-year schools grew by 9.8 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively.
“There are many people of strong faith who feel society is abandoning them,” said Jeffrey Wallin, president of the American Academy for Liberal Education, a liberal arts college accrediting agency. “They don’t want to abandon their children to a huge secular institution that will corrupt them.”
Florida is no exception to the trend. Palm Beach Atlantic University, a nondenominational “Christ-centered” school in West Palm Beach, had enrollment nearly double since 1991, climbing from 1,544 students to about 3,000 students today. It’s a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
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In the past five years PBAU has added schools of communication, pharmacy and nursing. The university rests on 25 extremely valuable acres near the Intracoastal Waterway and has an endowment of $50 million.
“I think we have benefited from what seems to be a real growing desire for families to look for a higher education that… develops the whole person,” said Buck James, PBAU’s vice president for enrollment services. “I do expect it will continue for the foreseeable future.”
Near the Collier County farm community of Immokalee, Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan is bankrolling construction of a new Catholic university called Ave Maria where 5,000 students and a whole new town are envisioned. While it won’t be an evangelical school, Monaghan — a longtime ardent foe of abortion — wants to instill strict Catholic principles in a university education.
There are a number of reasons for this steady growth at Christian-oriented schools, said Tony Pals, director of public information at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, whose nearly 1,000 members include secular and religious institutions. Among them:
- Home-schooling has caught on, and many parents who teach their children at home have strong religious beliefs. In 1992, 1 million kids were home-schooled; by 1999 the number had grown to 1.5 million, Pals said.
- Society has become increasingly concerned about public scandals and questionable behavior, and equally worried about student behavior at secular universities such as binge drinking and political protests.
- Religious schools have employed more sophisticated marketing, including Christian university fairs and “flashier brochures, doing a better job of promoting their spiritual mission,” Pals said.
Students’ spiritual attitudes may also be a factor. Preliminary results of a survey released last month by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 70 percent of college students polled said they had attended religious services in the past year, and 78 percent said they discussed religion or spirituality with friends. About 3,680 students at 46 public and private colleges responded to the survey.
‘There’s just so much variability’
But does a degree from an evangelical college or university carry the same weight as one from a secular school? While many religion-oriented universities are respected, some of the more conservative schools or their founders have unorthodox, controversial reputations.
Bob Jones University in South Carolina, for example, only ended its ban on interracial dating among students in 2000, after a firestorm of controversy following a visit there by presidential candidate George W. Bush.
After evangelist Oral Roberts founded the university bearing his name in Oklahoma, he claimed to have seen a 900-foot-tall Jesus and once warned that “God will call me home” unless he raised $8 million.
Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University in Virginia, blamed pro-choice advocates, feminists, gays, lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way — “all of them who have tried to secularize America” — for the Sept. 11 attacks.
The highly publicized policies and pronouncements of these ultraconservative universities and their namesakes undoubtedly color the opinion some people have of all such schools, educators say.
“Is that the perception of some people?,” said Jeffrey Wallin, the president of the American Academy for Liberal Education. “Yes. It’s as true as the belief that the radical left has taken over some institutions. I guarantee you it has. Just as you have wackos on the right, you have wackos on the left.”
“There’s just so much variability in these colleges,” said Larry Braskamp, professor of higher education at Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit institution. He divides Christian schools into three types:
•Church-affiliated schools, such as Notre Dame or Loyola, which have a religious legacy and have evolved into interdenominational institutions. Braskamp, a Presbyterian, has been teaching at Loyola since 1998.
•Evangelical schools that have a strong Christian heritage and mission and an explicit set of values that may include requiring students to attend chapel — Palm Beach Atlantic students must go 12 times per semester — or do volunteer or mission work.
•Fundamentalist schools, such as Bob Jones, Oral Roberts and Liberty universities, and small Bible colleges. They are “indoctrination-oriented” and less apt than the other types of schools to tolerate open discussion and alternate views. “It’s a matter of degree,” Braskamp said.
Some decry limited academic freedom
What troubles some educators are the restrictions placed by some Christian schools on academic freedom — what professors can teach and what students can hear. Many of these schools require their faculty to agree orally or in writing to a statement of faith in which they vow to adhere to Christian tenets as described by the school.
At Patrick Henry College in Virginia, for example, faculty and students are expected to “enthusiastically subscribe” to a 10-point statement of faith that includes such tenets as “Jesus Christ literally rose bodily from the dead,” and “Satan exists as a personal, malevolent being who acts as tempter and accuser” and hell is “where all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity.”
Faith statements are only problematic if faculty are prohibited from teaching theories or facts that conflict with the religious views espoused by their schools, many educators contend.
At Patrick Henry College, creationism was taught as a stronger scientific argument than evolution. The college was denied accreditation by the American Academy for Liberal Education last year, saying its faith statement restricted “liberty of thought and freedom of speech.” The college amended its policy and subsequently was awarded pre-accreditation status, said Wallin, the organization’s president.
“It was a problem because they taught that not as a religious belief but a scientific truth,” Wallin said. “That was so stifling, it left little room for discussion.”
Even at highly regarded Wheaton College in Illinois, trustees opted three years ago to ignore the objections of students and colleagues of a professor of anthropology and not reappoint him to his position. They said he gave little credence to creationism during his lectures on human origins.
But Braskamp, the Loyola University professor and a Presbyterian, said he feels more freedom to explore controversial issues at that Jesuit school than he did in his 23 years at a public institution, the University of Illinois.
At a public university, he explained, a professor is apt to feel more constrained in discussing religious issues because of concerns about separation of church and state. At Loyola, “I can express my own views a little easier.”
“Nobody has unlimited freedom,” Braskamp added. “It’s the choice of a faculty member whether they can live under those restrictions.”
Wallin agrees. “Most of the (faith statements) I’ve seen are not that restrictive. Usually professors who are quite religious tolerate different viewpoints and arguments.”
More continue to graduate school
At Palm Beach Atlantic, professors “must have a Christian commitment and the ability to integrate Christian faith with traditional course work.”
“Everyone has a worldview, a framework through which we experience the world and make choices about our lives,” said Joseph Kloba, PBAU’s provost. “Faculty at Palm Beach Atlantic University share a distinctive Christian worldview with their students in addition to examining other worldviews that may impact the content of the various academic disciplines.”
As PBAU has matured, it has raised its admissions requirements while adding several new schools of study, said James, the enrollment administrator. The average freshman now entering Palm Beach Atlantic has nearly a 3.5 grade point average and a SAT score of 1100, he said.
That’s been another key to the success of evangelical colleges and universities, said Pals of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. They have improved their reputations, he said, by offering more advanced degrees and new majors, while also attracting more academically gifted students than previously.
“You see more of their graduates going on to graduate school than in the past,” Pals said.
“In general, evangelical colleges have been becoming more scholarly,” Braskamp said. “(Secular) universities are much more open to these graduates than 10 or 15 years ago.”