While a senior last spring at a high school in Platte City, Mo., Elaine Brown had her eye on Southwest Missouri State University, the college her older brother attends.
But a friend was visiting Missouri Baptist College in St. Louis, and Elaine hadn't used up all of her allotted college-visit days. So, on a whim, she decided to make the trip. Result: a new applicant.
"I wasn't raised in a Christian home," she says. "My parents really wanted me to go to a [secular] university, but I didn't want that."
Now a freshmen at Missouri Baptist, Elaine is one of thousands of students propelling an enrollment boom at faith-based colleges and universities across the country.
In an age when many young people are seeking more moral rigor in their lives, a growing number are choosing to attend religious-affiliated schools, where class sizes are often small and the emphasis on values overt.
Between 1990 and 1998, the student population at the 100 member schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) jumped 35 percent. It rose 12 percent over the same period for all institutions with religious affiliations. That compares with a 5 percent increase at private colleges and 4 percent at public universities.
"The numbers show that, while parts of society may be drifting deeper into materialism and a me-first attitude about life, there are still ... millions of parents and students saying there must be something more and better to life, and they want that something to be part of their college education," says Robert Andringa, president of the CCCU.
A boom in the number of home-schooled students from 1 million in 1992 to 1.5 million today, plus a surge in enrollment at Christian private high schools, has contributed to the recruitment pool for Christian colleges.
But broader cultural factors are at work as well. Some, in fact, see a direct connection between a decline of morality in America and fuller classrooms at faith-based colleges. "There are a lot of people reacting to the direction our culture is taking," says Alton Lacey, president of Missouri Baptist College. "Those are the people we see coming to our institution."
The school prohibits alcohol, tobacco, and dancing on campus. Its enrollment has tripled in the past 10 years, to 3,000.
A buoyant economy may be contributing to the enrollment surge, too. Joel Carpenter, provost of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., cites surveys showing the upward mobility of evangelical Christians, leaving many better able to afford college.
At the same time, academic standards have risen at faith-based schools. As a result, newly affluent evangelicals are sending their children to Christian colleges, and more evangelicals that were sending their children to secular institutions for the quality of education are switching, too.
But critics of faith-based colleges say that religion and scholarship don't mix. They see some institutions as intolerant of certain scientific theories and a diversity of viewpoints.
Proponents of spiritually grounded higher education say the opposite is often true: Political correctness on secular campuses can render some subjects, such as religion, taboo.
How much faith itself is a motivating force in the decision by students to attend faith-based colleges is difficult to gauge. A host of peripheral factors often come into play: the small size
of the schools, a comeback of liberal arts, the desire of some students for a haven from the pressures of drinking and drugs.
"The so-called safety factor can be important, especially for parents," says James Mannoia, president of Greenville College in Illinois. "I tell them this is a dangerous place - there's education going on."
He and others readily acknowledge that spirituality is only one component of the education they offer. In fact, they shout it from dormitory rooftops: They are seeking to develop the "whole" person - academically, spiritually, and socially. They believe that goal gives them an edge over their secular rivals. "People talk a lot about values-added education today," says Dr. Lacey. "We often say that we're interested in giving you more than just the means to make a living. We also want to help you make a life."
Mannoia says students generally leave high school with attitudes that are black and white. At secular colleges, they often move into a relativistic stage, where truth is seen as indeterminate and the difference between right and wrong gets blurred.
He says his college is attempting to transcend black and white thinking, to achieve "critical commitment" - convictions tested by intellect and tempered by faith.
Still, finding the right mix between values and scholarship is a source of debate, even within the religious-college community. "The people of God were led out of Egypt to the promised land," says Mannoia. "We have too many [religious] colleges that just leave them in Egypt - they're too dogmatic - and too many [secular] universities that take them into the wilderness and let them wander there the rest of their lives."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society