What Are Some Criteria to Use for Choosing a Christian College or a Secular University?

When our daughters were considering a college, we told them, “Judge everything you hear by the Word of God, like the Bereans in Acts 17:11.” There will be disagreements with faculty and students, of course, but that’s healthy as long as people are appealing to a common authority, God’s Word. But when they aren’t, that’s where the trouble begins. I would far rather send my kids—or go myself—to a school that has certain doctrines I don’t embrace but that believes God’s Word, than to one I cannot trust.

I have spoken at a fair number of Christian liberal arts colleges and have been concerned with the drift away from belief in God’s Word, particularly in the biology, psychology, and sociology departments, but often even in the Bible departments. Unbelief spreads and expands like yeast. What really strikes me is the false advertising—the doctrinal statements are still very good, but they don’t reflect the actual beliefs and teachings of many of the professors. As one academic vice-president of a Christian liberal arts college told me (when I was speaking there for the week), “If Christian parents really knew what their kids are being taught here, they’d pull them out of school tomorrow.” Now, you’ll never see that quote in a brochure!

Why do Christian schools hire such teachers? Because they are slavishly committed to maintaining accreditation, no matter what. A faculty opening in the sociology department? Five people apply and only one with a Ph.D. and published papers or books? Hire him. Not a Christian? Well, that’s okay, he’s a good educator. Cumulatively, over decades, you can see where this will lead.

I’m not a hard-core separatist fundamentalist (though I certainly believe in the fundamentals). I’m comfortable with a broad range of evangelicals, Calvinist and Arminian, charismatic, non-charismatic and anti-charismatic. What alarms me is not a healthy diversity of viewpoints—I’m all for that. What alarms me is the abandonment of the doctrines and standards of Scripture and the conformity to the current drift of society. This applies to homosexuality, feminism, and a host of other things.

I’d recommend asking some questions of former and present students. Unless you find an unusually forthright person, I wouldn’t trust the answers you get from the school’s PR department—their job is to make the school sound wonderful, and if they pick up your concerns about doctrine, they’ll often reassure you the school is rock solid, even though it’s not. Ask juniors and seniors who are committed to the authority of the Scriptures and are mature believers what they have seen in the classrooms. Ask around and find a committed biblically solid Christian professor and ask him what’s really believed and taught. 

I suggest you visit the campus, go to some different classes and ask of yourself or others:

  • What is the atmosphere in the classrooms?
  • Are the professors committed to the infallible Word of God?
  • Is there a vibrant spiritual life among students and faculty? Are students and faculty involved in local churches?

Many students at Christian colleges drift from church while in school, and many of those never regain a solid commitment to the church. It’s vital for a school to be committed to the importance of faculty and student involvement in the local church and to make it a requirement.

If your child is going to a secular college or a Christian college that doesn’t adhere to the authority of the Scriptures, is he/she mature enough to face the worldly temptations as well as the intellectual challenges to his faith?

We would never send out missionaries who are insufficiently trained and prepared to deal with the false religions and temptations of another culture. OK, I’m going to say it: I think no young person should be sent to a secular college—or for that matter many “Christian” colleges—unless he is exceptionally knowledgeable of the Scriptures, is leading a strong Christian life, knows how to resist peer pressure and resist temptation to sex and drugs. (Many Christian kids go off to college and by the second term lose their virginity. Premarital sex is normal on most campuses, even some Christian campuses.)

If he is not prepared to question his professors, and if he may give in to their skepticism and attacks on the Christian faith, he does not belong there. If we want our children to lose their faith, there are less expensive ways to help them do that! (I’m being deliberately sarcastic to make an important point.)

A friend whose son attended a secular university said, “In college you’re either a Christian or you’re not. It’s very black and white, no middle ground. The Christian group on campus was my family away from home.” If your child goes to a secular college, I would first check into the campus ministry (Campus Crusade, Navigators, InterVarsity, DiscipleMakers, etc.) and the strength of local churches. Unless they get hooked up in a discipleship and accountability context, they will almost certainly have their Christian beliefs undermined.

I highly recommend every parent read, and then discuss with their kids, J. Budziszewski’s book How to Stay Christian in College and University of Destruction: Your Game Plan For Spiritual Victory on Campus by David Wheaton. 

Response to Randy’s Article:

Dear Randy,

I read with great interest your advice on choosing a Christian or secular college. Your overall advice to be like the Bereans is great counsel to our young people. I think anything we can do for our college-bound students to help them navigate the moral and spiritual challenges of college life is crucial. 

I have given our College Life 101 seminar over 60 times around the country and it has been my experience that the church is not doing enough to help our students prepare themselves for college. Any specific preparation about choosing a college, or education as to what the college experience is like is practically non-existent in youth programs. Regarding college, most churches give their students a slap on the back and tell them to “plug in” when they get to campus. But no one tells them how hard that will be or how to do it.

The other form of college preparation is just to reinforce Christian worldview, which is a necessary part of discipleship, but is far from the total picture of life in college. In my 20 years working with college students I have had only one student reject his faith on intellectual grounds. The vast majority of students fade away from their faith because they don’t know how to handle some very practical problems: loneliness, freedom, peer pressure, partying, shame and guilt from sin, and finding their Christian community.

Our students do need to be trained to think like the Bereans, but they also need to be warned like the Ephesian elders about the specific challenges to their faith in college, most of which are not intellectual. 


Ben Burns
Director | College Prep Seminars
Campus Crusade for Christ

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries