Each year, tens of thousands of Christian parents and their youth go through the process of determining which undergraduate institution is the best choice for the young man or woman. Those part of this exciting yet often painstaking processparents and children alikeconsider everything from a school's size and location to its program offerings and, with Christian schools, its values and theological emphases.
Sometimes parent and child agree on what they are looking for. Sometimes they don't. Parents want their sons and daughters to be safe. Students want to be safe, too, but they also want to have fun. Those who just graduated from high school want to feel at home at the place they choose. Many parents are inclined to think more practically ("major in something that will ensure a good job"), whereas children are more likely to pursue what interests them, even if Fortune 500 companies are not exactly waiting in line to hire the next graduate with a Medieval Art History degree.
Perhaps most significantly, children are generally less inclined than their parents to consider the cost of college, perhaps figuring that, after all, Mom and Dad are going to be the ones paying for it.
Feeling the Pain
For a long time, Christian parents have had to weigh the many advantages of attending a Christian institution with the greater affordability of state-supported schools. Undoubtedly, administrators at Christian colleges and universities empathize with Christian parents facing these decisions: They feel their pain in these tough economic times.
"Most of the prospective students and parents we work with have concerns about affordability," says Roscoe Smith, associate vice president for enrollment management at Cedarville University (Cedarville, Ohio). "They value the Christ-centered education and experience offered at Cedarville, but they are also weighing the cost."
In July 2008, Cedarville surveyed current high school seniors, 77 percent of whom, according to Smith, said that paying for college would be "quite difficult" or "somewhat difficult." Says Smith, "If we conducted the same survey today, given our current economic climate, I would expect that percentage to be even higher."
According to James Steen, vice president of enrollment management at Houston Baptist University (HBU), many prospective students considering HBU are also considering community colleges or state schools, largely because of cost. Steen notes that there are currently more than 60,000 community college students in the Houston area. Says Steen, "We also have several well-known state schools in close proximity that are significantly less expensive than HBU."
According to John Mayner, director of admissions at the Portland, Oregonbased Multnomah University, many Christian families make decisions believing that local churches or parachurch ministries can give young people the Christian values that are lacking in secular college environments. However, Mayner and most others associated with Christian higher education maintain that the church and parachurch can rarely adequately replicate the experience of being immersed "full-time" in a Christian learning community.
Splitting Time: A Wise Choice?
Some Christian families consider resolving their dilemma with a split-time option. Either they plan for the student to spend the first two years at a Christian school before transferring, or for the student to spend the first two years at a state school or community college before transferring to a Christian institution.
For several reasons, administrators at Christian schools find it difficult to recommend either option (see the sidebar "Where to Begin?"). For one thing, a student who transfers after two years will typically end up having to go more than four years because not all credits transfer.
According to Deana Porterfield, vice president of enrollment management at Azusa Pacific University, Christian families genuinely believe that attending a four-year Christian university offers "a rich environment academically and spiritually." Even though they believe this, however, sometimes it takes an experience at a Christian school to drive that belief home.
Most Christian colleges have stories to tell of young people who came to their school intending to transfer after two years, only to find they just couldn't do it.
Linda Fitzhugh, vice president for enrollment services at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, tells the story of Jason, a student very upfront about his plan to spend two years at LeTourneau before transferring to a less expensive institution. Says Fitzhugh, "Jason's degree was of a technical nature, so he didn't see any benefit to completing four years at a more expensive Christian university."
Jason's mother and grandmother were the biggest influencers in his college decision. In fact, Jason's mother was pursuing her master's degree at the less expensive institution to which Jason planned to transfer.
But, as Fitzhugh says, "Jason started school and realized that, unlike his mom, he actually knew his professors. To him and eventually his family, it was worth the extra expense for Jason to have some of the resources the inexpensive school lacked. He appreciated that his professors actually cared and encouraged him to start the job search soon."
Jason chose to make the necessary sacrifices. He has an on-campus job, lives at home, and doesn't have an iPhone. He packs his lunch instead of buying fast food. But he and his family are content knowing he is doing the right thing.
The Challenge of Fitting In
Students who transfer to a Christian university are faced with the challenge of feeling like a part of their new community. According to Michael Sapienza, director of enrollment management at Bryan College (Dayton, Tennessee), those who transfer in "do not have opportunity to make early connections with their classmates. They have to orient themselves at a time when others already have a year or more of history together."
Says Cedarville's Smith, "Students who spend all four years in one place develop deeper relationships. Students who transfer to another school never assimilate as completely as the students who started together as freshmen and stayed together all four years."
LeTourneau's Fitzhugh notes that freshmen "come in to school with several hundreds (or thousands!) of other freshmen who are all a little 'lost.' Friendships are more easily and naturally forged because everyone is in the same boat."
Asbury College has a unique class-identity program, in which each entering class is given a name, a Bible verse, a hymn, class colors, senior sponsors, and advisers (faculty or staff who remain with them all four years and at alumni reunions). Says Lisa Harper, director of admissions at Asbury, "This identity not only builds relationships and camaraderie, but also lays the foundation for a strong alumni base."
Harper laments, "Students who transfer in miss out on freshmen activities that establish a bond. Those who transfer out miss the junior and senior activities that lay the foundation for alumni events."
Although LeTourneau's Fitzhugh agrees that transfer students are somewhat disadvantaged because "many friendships and groups are already well established," she says the obstacles, at least for students transferring to LeTourneau, are not insurmountable. "A good percentage of college students," says Fitzhugh, "will attend several institutions before they finally walk across a stage to get their diploma."
Fitzhugh is not alone in believing there are ways to accommodate in-transferring students. Many schools intentionally help transfer students feel welcome. Asbury has several programs to make sure of this, including its TAG (Transition and Guidance) program and various other opportunities to meet faculty and students in one's chosen major.
Naming the Ideal
Christian colleges and universities do their best to accommodate students who, for whatever reason, transfer in or out. For the record, not all students who transfer out of Christian institutions do so because of the price. Wayne Strickland, vice president and academic dean at Multnomah, notes that some students transfer because of their future career. Says Strickland, "We have a career counseling requirement, and as we process with a student regarding career goals, gifting, and talent, we may help them recognize that they need a university that better fits the program they need."
Strickland continues, "We recognize that the kingdom is much larger than Multnomah, and praise God when a student is where God can best accomplish his work of developing Christ-likeness and outfitting the person for service."
Nevertheless, in general the ideal is for students to spend the four years of their undergraduate education at one place. Says Houston Baptist's Steen, "The college experience for those who start and finish at the same institution will be significantly more robust and fulfilling than for those who transfer. Although the outcome may be the same, relationships with faculty will be fewer, opportunities for life outside the classroom will be fewer, and employers and graduate schools may even be less attracted to those who have transferred around."
Indeed, at least one major survey indicates that it's best for students to spend all four college years at the same institution. In 2008, the National Survey of Student Engagement questioned 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities. The survey found that seniors who had transferred were in general "less engaged" in extracurricular activities and with faculty and classmates. According to the survey, seniors who had transferred talked less frequently with faculty about plans and were less likely to work with classmates outside of class.
"I often talk with families who accompany their students to visit LeTourneau," says Fitzhugh. "Many parents have told me that their first child attended a state school and that they thought they were ready to face life in 'the world,' only to discover it was a tragic mistake with sad consequences."
Fitzhugh urges parents to take seriously the results of a study by Gary Railsback, who found that a high percentage of young people who considered themselves "born again" as freshmen do not use that label after four years in a secular educational environment.
Ready to Sacrifice
For students to remain in one place for four years usually requires that they and their families make sacrifices they are not always willing to make. As Asbury's Harper puts it, "Finding families that are willing to pay for a four-year private education is more difficult than finding families that are able."
Bryan College provides financial incentives for students to spend all four years at Bryan instead of transferring in after a year or two. Says Bryan's Sapienza, "If a student wants to attend here, they realize that coming in as a freshman, they will receive far more renewable, merit-based aid than if they transfer in. The effect is that when they weigh the cost of the full four years, they find that entering as a freshman and receiving a strong financial aid package can be less expensive than going to a less expensive school and then coming here and paying nearly full tuition and room and board.
"When students take the long view, they understand that not only do we believe it is better for them to come here all four years, but we also back it up with our aid."
Turning Out Godly Adults
Cedarville's Smith encourages Christian parents facing tough decisions to ask basic questions such as: What is the goal of going to college? What kind of person do I hope my son or daughter will grow into? What kind of person do I hope he or she will be 10 years out of college? Twenty years?
Says Smith, "I think most Christian parents would agree that the real goal for their student is not for them to simply have a four-year degree and the ability to make a lot of money. Rather, the goal is to become a productive, godly adult who faithfully uses his or her God-given gifts for the good of others."
Smith continues, "It is my conviction that Christ-centered colleges are significantly more effective in producing these outcomes. I see no advantage to splitting your education between two schools. Even the supposed financial advantages are not as great as most people assume they will be."
Multnomah's Strickland suggests that those who have experienced a Christian college environment for four years are more likely to want that for their children. Says Strickland, "Many of our prospective students have parents who are alumni. They will do whatever they can for their students to have the full Multnomah experience."
Friends for Life
Among the chief benefits of attending a Christian school are the relationships that form. Asbury's Harper points out that Asbury carefully coordinates various activities that are particular to each of the four years. In addition to freshmen orientation, first-year students embark on outdoor adventures and have a freshmen talent show. Sophomores have a retreat and a musical. Various retreats, mission trips, and other cross-cultural experiences are part of the junior- and senior-year experience at Asbury. Says Harper, "If a student is not here all four years, many opportunities are missed. Each of these opportunities strengthens relationships."
"We see some students transfer out to complete a degree at a less expensive non-Christian school and ultimately return for several reasons, primarily because they didn't like the environment," says LeTourneau's Fitzhugh. "Most decide it is worth the extra money to be in a Christian environment."
In the end, each family must weigh the pros of cons of attending a Christian school, whether it is for two years, three years, or all four. There is no one right answer for everyone. However, Fitzhugh encourages families going through this decision-making process to heed the advice of the credit card advertisement: "The value of a Christian education," she says, "really is priceless when your student's faith is in the balance."
Randall L. Frame, a freelance writer and editor, also serves as Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Palmer Seminary.