A U.S. News & World Report College Ranking for the Soul

Is it possible to judge a school's ability to encourage deeper religious faith?
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I sometimes wonder whether my alma mater, the top evangelical college in the country, would consider me a successful graduate. I’m gainfully employed and satisfied with my life, but I no longer consider myself an evangelical Christian. I’m happy with my Wheaton College education, but would Wheaton be happy with me if it could look into my heart? Would prospective students and their parents be scared off by my story?

Christian higher education is big business. About 9 percent of American college students were enrolled in some kind of religious institution as of 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And while many historically Christian colleges have all but abandoned their religious roots, the smaller group of “intentionally Christ-centered” institutions that belong to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities currently enroll 400,000 students and counting; another 750,000 students are enrolled at Catholic institutions.

College rankings are big business, too, of course. And even much-criticized lists like U.S. News & World Report’s matter to prospective students more than they used to: A survey published last month by the consulting firm Art & Science found that two-thirds of college-bound students took rankings into consideration when choosing a school. As recently as 2002, only one-fifth of prospective students said they had even read any such lists. Despite the hand-wringing over their effect on college costs and over-inflated application pools, rankings are here to stay.

And yet college rankings that attempt to make serious judgments about the faith environment at various schools are surprisingly scarce. That’s not to say lists don’t exist: There’s the Newman Guide, a list of “faithful Catholic colleges” published by the Cardinal Newman Society, an independent Catholic education nonprofit, and guidebooks published by the influential evangelical monthly Christianity Today. Mainstream list-makers like Forbes will occasionally publish online rankings in which they collect the religious schools on their lists and then use their existing data to rank them, or count the number of self-professed religious students at the schools on their lists. Others publish silly but social-media-friendly lists like “the 12 worst party schools,” usually populated by schools with strict codes of conduct.

But few list-makers make any attempt to quantify the kind of things that devout high-school students and their parents look for in an institution of higher learning: things like the faith of professors and fellow students, the commitment to students’ spiritual growth, and the strength of campus ministries.

One intriguing recent attempt comes from the Catholic-leaning magazine First Things, which published a “Top Schools in America” list in 2010 but has not done so since. To compile its top schools, the magazine conducted polls of students on things like “theological reasoning of faculty” and “vibrancy of campus ministries.” They also took into account existing academic data, along with the opinions of “the extended network of First Things friends and colleagues who teach at many of these schools.”

The result is deeply subjective, but then again, most of these lists are, and the magazine is at least attempting to capture qualities important to students who want to nurture their faith as well as their intellect at college. If you are the kind of person who reads First Things, you are likely to find their list at least worth considering.

The First Things primary list of “Top Schools” is not exclusively Catholic, though it’s certainly catholic with a lower-case “c”: they represent a surprisingly broad array of religious tastes. The top spot is occupied Wheaton College, my evangelical alma mater in Illinois; Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic college in California, is at no. 2; Princeton is at no. 3; next come the Air Force Academy, Brigham Young University, and Yeshiva University.

They also offered separate lists of the “Most Catholic Catholic Schools” (Ave Maria University), “Least Catholic Catholic Schools” (DePaul University), “Best Seriously Protestant Schools” (Wheaton), and a few others. If these categories sound ludicrous, they are probably not for you. To a significant minority of college shoppers, though, these are reasonable things to consider, and useful things to rank.

Others have compiled similar lists, although none seem to have performed original survey work. Allen Guelzo, a Civil War scholar at Gettysburg College, published a fine list of top evangelical colleges a few years ago in an article that fretted about their future. A young website called The Best Schools has put out a few lists like “the best colleges for studying the Bible.” A conservative youth organization called the Young America’s Foundation offers a list of top institutions that “proclaim, through their mission and programs, a dedication to discovering, maintaining, and strengthening the conservative values of their students.” (Obviously, “conservative” is not remotely synonymous with “Christian,” but only one of the 15 schools on the latest list identifies as neither Catholic or Christian, so there’s significant overlap, at least from this group’s perspective.)

But there’s no universally satisfying way to sum up a school’s spiritual gestalt. In February, a man named Rondall Reynoso, who teaches art classes at a small Christian college in California, published his own online list of 191 “Christo-centric institutions” focused on the liberal arts. His concerns about his list may shed light on why there’s no one-size-fits-all Guide to Seriously Religious Colleges.

Reynoso began by culling institutions that belong to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and a few similar bodies, adding and subtracting other schools based on his own discretion, and then weighing factors like reputation, student satisfaction, and selectivity. But despite the care he took to include only “colleges that are serious about their Christian commitment,” he acknowledges that the list doesn’t take spiritual questions into account. “There is, at times, a real difference [between] Christian culture and authentic Christianity,” Reynoso wrote in an email. “If I had a magic wand, I would love to be able to quantify the spiritual health of the institution and the impact they have on student thriving over the course of students’ lives.”

That magic wand doesn’t exist. And if it did, who would make the rules for it? Matters of faith and spiritual thriving are not as quantifiable as SAT scores and classroom size. They are even more subjective than fuzzier things like academic reputation. Christians wrestle with other Christians all the time about who is practicing Christianity correctly, for better and for worse. If we didn’t, there would be one big book of Best Churches in America“—an absurd idea to anyone who has loved a church their family would hate, or vice versa.

So for now, devout prospective students and their parents will have to make do with the patchwork of existing guidebooks, word of mouth, and good old-fashioned gut instinct. (Some of them will call that the Holy Spirit.) After all, even if a student graduates from a bona fide evangelical Christian college, it’s impossible to guarantee where she’ll wind up 10 years down the road.

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Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire and a contributing writer for the Boston Globe's Ideas section. She has also written for Slate, the Wall Street Journal, and Marie Claire.

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