It's common for Christian parents to think they can't afford to send their son or daughter to a private Christian school. Some of these families consider a compromise option of sorts: splitting time between the Christian school and a less expensive public institution. This leads to the question of whether to spend the first two years or the last two at the Christian school.
By and large, Christian college administrators feel that neither is a good option. Says Deana Porterfield, vice president of enrollment management at Azusa Pacific University (APU), "Students who find their place on our campus can be devastated to leave their junior year, while those who transfer here as upperclassmen face having to make a transition to another institution."
Craig Boyd, director of APU's Institute of Faith Integration, points out that courses in philosophy, theology, and biblical studies are the ones that shape the "habits of the heart" and constitute "the sine qua non of Christian higher education." Says Boyd, "Since these courses are taught at the beginning of a student's career, they tend to provide the groundwork for integrating other disciplines into an informed faith. Without these courses, students who attend the last two years are skipping the basics. It would be like someone going to a culinary school and attending only the last part of the coursework. I don't know if I would want to eat that individual's crème brulee."
On the other hand, Boyd notes that most Christian universities offer capstone courses that pull together four years of technical training in a discipline with issues of Christian faith. "As a result," says Boyd, "students who get only the first two years of a Christian education never have the opportunity to think reflectively on their discipline in light of their faith."
An Unnecessary Choice?
Says Vance Pascua, director of traditional undergraduate admission at William Jessup University, "In my 21 years in admissions, I've had the privilege of describing the benefits of both approaches. But before I consider them, I make sure families are not 'settling' for one based on deficient or flawed information. All too often, families are misinformed regarding financing a private higher education, and therefore choose a path that may not be necessary."
What Pascua is referring to is the fact that few students who attend Christian colleges or universities pay the full sticker price. In fact, many receive financial aid generous enough to reduce the gap between private and public education to a few thousands dollars a year.
Michael Sapienza, director of enrollment management at Bryan College, notes that the savings of the split-time option may not be as great as anticipated. Says Sapienza, "Students who transfer to a new school after two years expect to graduate in two more years, but for several reasons, this seldom happens."
He explains, "One big reason is that not all the courses they took will be credited toward their degree program. Thus, while the second year at a community college might be cheap, it does not always save people any money and, in fact, might delay the student's entering the workforce or graduate school."
For those families who feel they must make this choice, most administrators at Christian colleges highly recommend starting at the Christian institution. Says Linda Fitzhugh, vice president for enrollment services at LeTourneau University, "I strongly recommend spending the first two years at LeTourneau. Students are most vulnerable in their freshman and sophomore years to the tsunami of peer pressure at most state schools. Their newfound life without parental parameters makes for some tumultuous years during which some behaviors can cause serious life derailments. It's important to give them a solid foundation so that their faith is firmly established early on."
Roscoe Smith, associate vice president for enrollment management at Cedarville University, agrees: "The most important outcome of a college education is the ability to think critically and become a lifelong learner. The courses in the first two years tend to develop critical thinking skills, enabling students to clarify and adopt their own worldview. I would much prefer that a student be introduced to a biblical worldview from the outset. The foundation is more important than the structure built upon it."
Adds Ken Taylor, director of retention at Taylor University, "High school tends to involve a lot of isolated facts strung together. When you get to college, you begin to learn how to take the concrete facts and put them into a consistent worldview. That's why I recommend that students spend the first two years at a Christian college. During the first two years, students take a number of general education classes. As they take these classes, they will experience the integration of faith and learning, a basic theme at Taylor. They will be able to see that faith occupies all avenues of thought and practice."
A Change of Heart (and Mind)
There is another reason Christian college administrators recommend that students begin their academic careers at a Christian school. It gives students and their families the opportunity to experience the benefits of living and learning in a Christian environment. Upon doing so, many will conclude that spending four years at the same school is worth the cost.
As Lisa Harper, director of admissions at Asbury College, puts it, "If students spend the first two years at our college, there is a greater chance they will choose to stay and receive their diploma here."
Says William Jessup University's Pascua, "Experience has revealed an interesting phenomenon: Once parents have had a chance to discover the deeper meaning of a Christ-filled educational experience, suddenly the cost of the education goes from being a burden not worth the perceived financial risk to a valued educational investment seen as a sacrifice worth making."
Pascua adds, "Once this metamorphosis takes place, often the family's view on spending dramatically changes, and we see students completing all four years at the Christian college or university."
Part 1: Coming for God, Staying for Good
Part 3: Where the Heart and Mind Meet