Catherine Shultis, a National Merit Scholar with a perfect SAT score, is a natural for the hallowed halls of academia: Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown. But last month, she began her freshman year at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
Why Steubenville instead of Cambridge, Mass., or New York? The East Coast elite universities "lack a grounding in the Christian faith, and they're turning away from core principles and becoming more and more liberal," she says.
In these politically polarized times, a rising number of top conservative students are politicizing their school choices. Instead of going to a Princeton or Stanford, they're opting for less costly home-state universities or smaller schools that see themselves as standardbearers of Christian values and laissez-faire governance. Such choices are perhaps a boon to those who intend to pursue careers in politics, since conservative think tanks increasingly are recruiting from these colleges.
"Schools like Grove City, Brigham Young, and Hillsdale are some of our more popular schools," says Elizabeth Williams, intern coordinator for the conservative Heritage Foundation, in an e-mail. "Their students are usually of very high caliber."
That doesn't mean there has been an exodus from established East Coast schools, which consistently draw outstanding students of every stripe.
"We have far more students on the right than I used to know when I was vice president of Boston University," says Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University in Washington.
But enrollment at several conservative Christian schools is on the upswing. For example: Patrick Henry College in Virginia, whose mission is to "prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values," first opened its doors in 2000 to 87 students. This year, enrollment stands at 330, and the median SAT score for its freshmen has also jumped, from 1170 to 1340 in the same period.
At Franciscan, Ms. Shultis's new school, where a fledgling group of Democrats disbanded because of lack of interest, enrollment has topped 2,000, up 220 in the past four years. Average grade-point scores of incoming freshmen have also risen.
Job opportunities for these students have also increased, at least in the conservative political sphere. For example: five of the seven leading officers of the College Republican National Committee attend or have graduated from state universities. This summer, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum Collegians recruited an intern each from the University of Minnesota and Wheaton College, a small, Christian school in Illinois.
In 2002, three of the four fellows at the Collegiate Network, which promotes conservative college journalism, came from Princeton, Yale, and Stanford. Today, the two Ivy Leaguers are outnumbered by five other students from state schools, Notre Dame, or Holy Cross. Fifteen of this year's Heritage Foundation interns came from schools that provide a values-based, Christian education, triple the number in 2000.
Those students may find that their degrees carry all the weight of an Ivy League diploma if they choose to work with Republican politicians. "With a lot of the red-state government officials you have a near-total abolition of the preexisting strong bias toward Northeast schools," says David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Some families and students have even turned to conservative college guides.
"We kept getting calls from students and parents who said, and we agree, that their conservative values were viciously attacked on campus," says Jason Mattera, a spokesman for the Young America Foundation (YAF), which offers such a guide. "You have a crazy liberal college atmosphere where they show the 'Vagina Monologues,' [a one-woman play], and host queer parades. And many students and parents are concerned that they're not getting a decent education."
The YAF's list of top 10 conservative college list is weighted toward smaller, religion- oriented schools like Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va., and Christendom College in Fort Royal, Va.
"Choose the Right College," released by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, promotes schools that adhere to "core curricula" - study of the foundational thinkers of Western civilization such as Plato, Aquinas, and Adam Smith. Editor John Zmirak praises smaller Christian schools, but he also includes Yale in his guide for its "liberal but tolerant professors." And he warns that small Christian schools run the risk of isolating their student bodies.
Many top students, no matter what their ideology, will still seek out top schools, Mr. Trachtenberg says. "They want to be rubbing up against the most competitive students they can find, whatever their political persuasion is."