- Seeing the Light: Religious Colleges in Twenty-First America
The history of higher education in America is one of the religious college until the Civil War when, with the passage of the Lincoln-Morrill Act emphasizing agriculture and technology, institutions began to turn away from their liberal arts curriculum that was heavily infused with religious study.
It was not until after World War II that public education found its true legs. It took more than 300 years for the enrollment in public universities to overtake that of private institutions; and as of 2008, three-quarters of all students studied at the publics (Snyder & Dillow, 2010, Table 189). Even as this occurred, many of the most prestigious of the private universities, which had been established, in part, to foster their founders' Protestant faiths, had long since discontinued their association with their denominations and instead advertised their excellence at research and teaching rather than their desire to save souls.
In an era when the growth of the for-profit sector of higher education doubled between 2003 and 2008 and now accounts for nearly 8% of all students enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions (Snyder & Dillow, 2010, Table 189), a study of religious colleges might at first thought be considered nostalgic or to have little real value. Instead, one would find that the patient is not dead; in fact, the religious college is showing new vitality and purpose.
Samuel Schuman in Seeing the Light: Religious Colleges in Twenty-First Century America has taken a snapshot of the wide variety of these institutions, including Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Evangelical, and nondenominational. He focuses attention on the fact that these colleges have not only a missiondriven purpose but also attract a dedicated and intentioned student.
Schuman describes himself as "a moderate and a friend of religious higher education, but writing from a position external to that movement" (p. 18). This is not a study by one who is fully indoctrinated into any particular institution or faith. He admires their purpose but accepts that they are also imperfect.
Pulling from Astin's Higher Education Research Institute's 2004 study of spiritual development of more than 110,000 undergraduate students at 236 institutions, Schuman reflects on its findings that 80% of students report spirituality as being of interest and 76% are looking for meaning in their lives. While these statistics would not necessarily mean that these students are active in any specific religion, about 80% of all students say they believe in God and two thirds of them pray (pp. 7–8).
A similar study done of 40,000 college professors indicated that 81% considered themselves spiritual and 61% prayed; but when asked if colleges should include spiritual development as part of their educational curriculum, only 30% of faculty agreed. The figure was lower for faculty at nonsectarian institutions (pp. 7–9). One must be curious about why these important conversations do not occur more frequently in the classroom, regardless of institutional type, when clearly both faculty and students would enjoy the robustness of the subject matter. The public institution might have to exercise circumspection that these discussions did not breach the wall between church and state, but certainly the private institutions could only benefit from their students' desired learning if the subject were openly talked about.
Schuman points out that private funding of religious institutions is growing, particularly for conservative Christian colleges and universities. While he makes note of the higher than average philanthropic generosity among religious conservatives, it should also be noted that perhaps these institutions have been better at articulating their purposes.
In an era when both the federal government and accrediting associations are looking to institutions to prove they are living out their intentions as defined in their mission statements, many religious institutions point to their desires to educate for faith and do so with pride.
Schuman's interview technique of visiting a variety of religious institutions and meeting with their students, their parents, faculty, administration, and ministry staff inevitably shows a wide...