FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 09/08/2011

Is a Christian College Education 'Worth It'?

Dr. Kaye Cook with students

September 6, 2011        Volume 4, Issue 9


. . . an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College . . .

By Kaye Cook

Lately there’s been a lot of fuss about the value of a college education. A recent study showed one in four Americans believe a college education is a bad investment in an already bad economy. Others question whether a college degree is still the surest ticket to success, and wonder if the benefits of higher education have been overstated.

Since most students attend college between ages 18 and 30—a period of their lives that has come to be called “emerging adulthood”—the psychologist in me is a little worried about this recent trend. This period, after all, is a crucial time of development for young people, distinguished by many formative experiences including identity exploration. By nature college campuses are alive with ideas, and students are introduced to multiple views. But since not all institutions of higher learning help students develop their own ideas in a coherent way, I’d argue that a Christian liberal arts college is uniquely placed to nurture identity and values development. In other words, a Christian education is more than ‘worth it.’

Consider the work of Jeffrey Arnett, a leading scholar on emerging adults who believes we best foster development by encouraging the formation of a solid worldview, ego identity, and interpersonal connections. In other words, as young people form their worldview, by which Arnett means “a coherent body of shared images, ideas, and ideals,” they are more prepared—more developed—for the future.

Likewise, in their book, Cultivating the Spirit: How Colleges Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives, authors Astin, Astin and Lindholm assert (on the basis of nationwide data not collected from religious institutions) that today’s students are seeking deeper meaning and asking bigger questions about values and mission. Spiritual and intellectual growth, then, go hand in hand.

But if questions about spiritual values and morality are not addressed during the college experience, perhaps the investment does indeed come up short. For today’s students, the value of a college education seems to have more to do with character and less to do with money. Christian colleges are dedicated to such a purpose.

Over the past several years, I, along with a team of students and a colleague from a sister college, have interviewed almost 1,000 Christian college alumni as well as first-year students and seniors to document the development of their Christian worldviews during college. Students entered a Christian college with a solid faith, and 97 percent of them maintained their faith upon graduation and at least four years postgraduation.

We also tested students on what those in my field call committed questing, that is, having, within the context of faith, a willingness to see doubt as sometimes positive and a readiness to deal with the complexities of life’s challenges. Questing is sometimes a tension between the value of owning one’s faith and seeking to know God better. It stimulates movement toward a deeper understanding and ownership of the students’ faith and values. Pivotal in the development of both spiritual and intellectual maturity, questing increased among our Christian college students while orthodoxy and religious identity remained the same. Thus, while students did explore other ideas, their core beliefs remained unchanged; there was freedom within framework of faith.

Our study shows that a Christian liberal arts college creates an environment where values do guide personal behavior, questing is perceived as a positive (if sometimes stressful) path to spiritual growth and human flourishing, and intellectual maturity can be nurtured. One student we interviewed told us, “Having a well-founded faith is great when it comes to tricky decisions.” Another said, “I laughed to think that I might be accepted at a Ph.D. program at Harvard, but Gordon prepared me well. I not only got in, I’ve loved it. My faith is often challenged, but, even if they don’t know it, they operate from values too.”

So is a Christian college education worth it? It is certainly crucial for those going on to serve in religion-oriented vocations such as church work, missions, publishing, or education. But it also builds a readiness to face future challenges because it develops the values that make up a worldview. In fact, this intellectual and spiritual integration is most often successful in a religious setting that pays attention to and reinforces such values. Christian colleges, then, can serve as a model for a context in which faith and academic disciplines are taken seriously, and where an openness to the coherence of one’s values and commitment to core beliefs can be encouraged.

When we nurture students’ values, we develop within emerging adults the qualities they desire and that they’ll need to succeed in the world beyond college. That’s an investment on which the return is immeasurable.

Dr. Kaye Cook is professor of psychology at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. She and her family live in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Click here for more information on Dr. Cook's study.