Thoughts On Choosing a College from a Former College Dean


I started college in the fall of 1996 at Washington University in St. Louis.  I entered as a chemistry major, which lasted until my first chemistry lab.  I quickly realized that being a chemistry major involved doing a lot of dishes.  After washing beakers and flasks in a basement laboratory, I decided chemistry just wasn’t for me.  I switched to psychology in order to get a Tuesday/Thursday class schedule and spent my Sophomore year working out, sleeping in, and skipping every class I could. 

In a moment of true academic clarity, I followed Kim (my then girlfriend now wife) to the University of Illinois at Chicago.  While she pursued her PharmD, I decided to major in Exercise Physiology taking a diverse array of classes ranging from physics and organic chemistry to basketball and “slimnastics.”  I had started working as a personal trainer and spent most of my time in the gym.  My GPA suffered, but I did enough to earn my degree.  

I would not assume that my college experience is typical, but I do wonder whether it is more typical than we may be willing to admit.  I firmly believe that had it not been for the people in my life who kept pushing me to finish, I would have dropped out of college and done something (anything!) else.  As it was, it got to a point when some people (particularly my wife) thought I might never end my career as a professional student (I went on to earn a three-year Master of Divinity, a two-year Master of Arts, and a PhD).

Looking back on my college experience, I think I probably approached my choice of colleges like a lot of other prospective students. Until my wife’s older sister went to Washington University, I didn’t even know it existed. She seemed to like it and Kim (who was a year behind me) was planning to attend “Wash U,” so, after viewing a couple of brochures, I decided to attend. The word-of-mouth marketing and student network did its job. Washington University was also known as a strong pre-med school. It’s reputation checked another box. The fact that it was only about an hour from my hometown which would allow me to visit home on the weekends to see Kim made it a likely choice.

While those factors may be important, they aren’t the only factors.  For Christian students, they may not even be the most significant factors.  Having served in biblical higher education for just over a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor students and to watch as they graduated college and went on to graduate school or into the workforce.  Working with Bible colleges, Christian colleges, and seminaries as a consultant since 2014, I’ve also had the opportunity to see their administrative operations and systems, to understand the general higher education data that most schools use to inform their decision-making, and to evaluate the messages many schools use in student recruitment.  

My intention here is not to do a “hit” piece on higher education, yet it would be quite challenging to offer any substantive thoughts on college choice without raising some of the perceived concerns I have with higher education in the United States today. I would also point out that the problems I note are not uniform across all higher education institutions. I’ll walk through three major issues I see with higher education generally and then offer some thoughts on how Christian parents might think differently about helping their children choose a post-high school experience that is led less by the expectations of our culture and more by the Holy Spirit’s prompting in their lives.

Problem 1: Capacity

In my post entitled “The Capacity Conundrum,” I note, “…in a highly missional, often resource strapped sector there is often a risk that the next creative idea or pet project will push an organization beyond what it has the capacity to handle unless employees are pressured to go ‘above and beyond’ to make it work.”  I went on to suggest that employees need to help their organization by recognizing the way we enable our organization’s willingness to run beyond its capacity when we “take on more work than we should, pick up the slack for co-workers or bosses who aren’t willing or able to do their fair share, or allow personalities to move ahead with big ideas without questioning how those big ideas will actually come about…”  

While my focus in that post was on internal institutional initiatives and “innovations” that created capacity problems within an organization, higher education’s capacity problems are also driven by policy decisions, market factors, governance paradigms, and a host of other factors. Ultimately, higher education institutions often develop into comprehensive societies with all the resources needed to handle residential life, front-line healthcare needs, security, counseling support, technology infrastructures, etc. While different colleges handle these areas in different ways, it is not at all unheard of for colleges to, for instance, have their own police departments. That’s not exactly something you would automatically consider necessary to the teaching and learning experience, which is arguably the core experience colleges are intended to provide.

The capacity issue in higher education is, in my estimation, a bigger problem than most may think, particularly given the skill sets needed to lead such diverse institutions. Today’s college presidents often have to have a range of knowledge and skills that include basics like hiring well and handling matters associated with a C-Suite position, as well as directing and/or engaging in fundraising, enrollment management, long-range planning, and board management. Depending on the size of the institution, presidents can also be the “face” of the institution with a variety of constituents including students. In addition, with all the school’s operations interwoven into a single institution, the challenges of internal constituency management and governance only become more challenging as various university citizens question decisions, construct conspiracy theories, and generally make it more difficult for leaders to actually implement a clear strategy.

The problems with such an arrangement are multiple, but perhaps the most evident is a “jack of all trades” problem. Many of today’s colleges aren’t “masters” of everything they do. They spread themselves thin and run the risk of diminishing their strengths in order to retain a minimal level of competence in other areas. As Hagel III and Singer note in “Unbundling the Corporation,” “When the three businesses [customer relationship management, infrastructure management, and product innovation] are bundled into a single corporation, their divergent economic and cultural imperatives inevitably conflict. Scope, speed, and scale cannot be optimized simultaneously. Trade-offs have to be made.” It seems to me that one of higher education’s biggest problems is that many of its institutions don’t have the resources needed to remain “bundled.” At the same time, it seems clear that many higher education institutions simply don’t know what sort of business they are. In trying to be all things to all people, many universities have simply lost sight of what it means to be a college.

Problem 2: Best Practices

During my days of leading a distance education department, “best practices” were (for some) the end all be all of what it meant to have a “quality program.” While I don’t dismiss best practices, I also recognize that adhering to industry standards in any given concrete situation won’t get the job done. Aligning with an industry’s “best practices” isn’t a strategy. Strategy is the risky proposition adopted by an institution with specific competitors, constituencies, distinctives, and limitations in mind.

Yet, many schools talk about “best practices” rather than distinctives. That difference may sound subtle, but it is quite important because the best practices can (and often do) become default settings for (sub?) standard experiences. Having been a dean, I can certainly say that not all faculty members are created equal. Not all programs are created equal. Best practices are too generic to account for the complexities of a given institution’s community life because developing toward a “best practice” in one area often leaves other areas deficient.

Yet, best practices are easy to message because many prospective students and parents don’t go deeper than surface metrics presented by marketing and recruitment personnel. With the right framing an institution can put their best “foot” (or practices) forward to mask the less attractive aspects of the institution.

In reality, student-to-faculty ratios calculated for the institution as a whole don’t always mean that the distribution of faculty in a particular program is helpful.  The famed “integration of faith and learning” across the curriculum says little about it’s actual effectiveness at helping students think Christianly about their discipline.  The total number of faculty with a terminal degree does not speak to proficiency in the classroom, personal character or willingness to mentor students.  

Perhaps worse, adherence to best practices can result in complacency. Instead of continually looking for deficiencies, the pressures associated with economic realities, constituency management and various other challenges too often keep institutions in a reactionary mode. The comprehensive nature of higher education (see Problem 1) means that economies of scale are difficult to realize, particularly given that most prospective students and parents are looking for a low student to faculty ratio (which costs more for an institution to maintain). Best practices can quickly become a shorthand way to denote minimum standards.

Problem 3: Identity

Several years ago, I was speaking with a president of a mid-sized Christian liberal arts college in an urban center.  As we talked, I got the impression that he and I had very different conceptions of what it means to be a Christian college.  At one point, I asked him how he thought about students of non-Christian backgrounds and the responsibility of the school in helping them come to know Christ.  He answered that at a recent graduation a Muslim student had come to him after the ceremony and told him that he felt more connected to Allah than he had before he came to the school.  The president said he viewed that as a success for the college.  I disagree.  

What does it mean to be a Christian college?  What about a Bible college?  A seminary? What are the purposes of higher education more generally?  Is there still value in a liberal arts education or should higher education surrender to the pragmatic pressures of finding a career after college?

These questions tend to lie beneath the surface of many higher education institutions. Schools often define themselves through features and stats. For secular institutions, that might include the percentage of students who get a job after graduation. Others might point to their commitment to liberal arts or to specific “superstar” programs and faculty. Christian and bible colleges often answer what it means to be “Christian” or “biblical” through doctrinal statements and the inclusion of biblical and theological coursework in the curriculum. Institutions often attempt to check certain boxes like having a faculty made up exclusively of professing Christians (not all do), admitting only Christian students (not all do), affirming some sort of doctrinal statement, requiring students to take a certain number of credit hours in Bible and theology, and having a weekly chapel. Whatever you may think about those boxes, prospective students and parents would do well to take a less from an unlikely source: Slavoj Zizek.

During an interview on ideology, Zizek was handed a package of fair trade, organic chocolate and asked to describe it in ideological terms. He went on to suggest that purchasing the chocolate bar allowed individuals to participate in the fight against exploitation and environmental degradation as consumers. The underlying premise being that those who buy the chocolate can still consume while also helping solve major global problems. Buying the chocolate becomes what it means to participate. No more is needed. As he asserts, buying the chocolate allowed individuals not to do other things: “The crucial point is…what you don’t have to do when you do this [purchase organic, fair-trade chocolate].”

I’d like to suggest that the normal institutional “check boxes” offer a similar allowance not to do other things (as institutional leaders or as parents and students). Having a confessional faculty offers many prospective students and parents the false security that they will be presented with theologically appropriate ways of thinking. They may even assume that faculty who are Chrisitans have a character commensurate with such a profession. Doctrinal statements offer a similar comfort as people assume (I think wrongly) that agreeing on a basic doctrinal statement means that individual faculty or the faculty as a whole have done the hard work of allowing their theology to overshadow and inform their discipline (I would say that is the case even for scholars in the biblical and theological disciplines).

We see certain marks and are persuaded that their presence means the education provided will add to the disciple making efforts in which we are all to be involved. Yet, as Howard notes in Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University, we must be ever diligent to avoid the ancient vice of curiositas, which is “knowledge of important things lodged in minds unsuited to steward them.” Higher education, particularly Christian and biblical higher education, has an identity problem. Personally, I think it stems from a number of factors including, but not limited to, an almost complete disconnection from any real sense of responsibility to the church and an unwillingness to look beyond institutional survival to the core activity of education for discipleship which may not require higher education at all. In any case, it seems to me that the adjectives “Chrisitan” and “biblical” are losing the wrestling match with the noun “higher education” at many institutions.

I’m not sure I’ve done justice to the three problems noted above. I do hope I’ve done enough to alert you of some of the challenges associated with college choice. In my estimation, Christian and biblical higher education institutions vary greatly at the institutional, programmatic and personal levels. To choose based on the moniker of “Chrisitan” or “biblical” is short-sighted. There may be little functional difference between some Bible and Christian colleges and secular colleges and universities. In fact, you may want to consider whether exposure to more overt confrontations to the Christian faith as one might experience at a secular university might help your child grow in her or his faith more than exposing them to secular theories veiled in theological and biblical terms.

Over the course of my career, I’ve known some faculty to whom I would gladly entrust my children. I’ve also known some that I would not want to have any influence on my children. In the end, given the three problems I’ve noted above, I tend to think that higher education institutions are not capable of independently discipling a young woman or man fresh out of high school. In this respect, we put far too much trust (and weight) on higher education institutions. They are, in my estimation, incapable of providing the sort of comprehensive formational experience needed to make next generation disciples. So, what does this mean for college choice? I’ll offer three words of advice.

Suggestion 1: Don’t depend on the school

I’ve not gone through the process of sending my children off to college, yet, having worked with prospective students and parents in varying capacities over the years, I know it can be a difficult, expensive, and complex decision. Ultimately, schools will more likely be where your son or daughter meets peers. Those peers are not in the best position to serve as mentors or spiritually mature guides. They are navigating much the same realities as the rest of the students. Even at a 10:1 student to faculty ratio, many students don’t receive the sort of close mentoring that one might assume. As noted above, not all faculty are well-suited to the task of mentoring.

As such, it seems theologically fitting to look to the local church.  Where can your son or daughter find men and women who are spiritually mature, capable of offering support, guidance, and an outside perspective, and ready to make a true contribution to your son or daughter’s growth?  Where can you son or daughter begin to learn what it means to give oneself to a local body of believers, to pray, worship, laugh, and cry together, to step away from one’s more selfish, insular tendencies of campus life to address the needs of others?  

Don’t depend on a college to form your sons and daughters.  Surely, they will be formed by those at the college, but college doesn’t last forever.  Giving your son or daughter the gift of a local body and reinforcing the importance of being involved in that body will remind them that they are not primarily “up and coming” professionals, but people of the body and the book committed to growing up into the body of Christ.  

Take time when visiting a college to engage with local churches. Visit some on a Sunday or arrange calls with a pastor or elder. Find a local body willing to commit to helping your son or daughter grow in their faith.

Suggestion 2: Ask different questions

Most people don’t realize just how much the curriculum matters. The way the scope and sequence of a curriculum is developed says a lot about just how the “integration of faith and learning” will occur as your son or daughter progress toward their degree. After just over a decade in higher education administration and six years of consulting experience, I’ve only ever seen one institution (a seminary) give a deep, clear rationale for their curricular sequence that describes how one part leads into another and how later classes in the curriculum build on those offered earlier in the curricular sequence. One.

Having participated in building curriculum, I have a good sense about how difficult it can be to maneuver the politics involved in determining the curriculum.  Despite the politics, however, it is the job of the faculty (at most institutions) to set aside commitments to a given discipline and to create a holistic curriculum well-suited for student learning.  

Instead of being satisfied when institutions give you sound bites, ask them to describe how their curriculum is structured, how one class builds on another, how the early bible and theological classes or the general education classes are utilized throughout the rest of the curriculum. Probe it. Don’t let those answering questions give you generic responses. Push to understand just how the curriculum will help in shaping the way your son or daughter thinks about the world around them. Don’t be shy about asking questions like how discussions about certain topics (e.g. politics and religion) are handled. Ask questions until you are comfortable that you understand how you son or daughter will be taught while at the school.

Questions aren’t limited to the curriculum. Ask to meet faculty, talk with them about their teaching style. If you are at a secular institution, ask those you speak with about their perspective on Christianity. Ask for blunt answers and do it with your son or daughter present. If you are at a Christian institution, don’t be afraid to ask about difficult topics like views on social justice, women in the church, etc. Again, let your son or daughter hear the answers. They need to know what they are getting into just as much as you do.

Suggestion 3: Think about getting a tailored suit rather than buying “off the rack.”

College isn’t the best choice for every young man or woman just graduating high school.  While I’m not quite ready to say that a degree is no longer important, I would say that earning a degree isn’t necessary for everyone.  

Just as college isn’t the best choice for everyone, some individuals will thrive at one school and struggle at another. Personally, I did far better at Washington University than at UIC. There was just enough structure at Wash U that my laissez faire approach really worked. UIC had less structure and required more organization. That was not my strong suit.

Students need to “fit” at the school they choose.  They should still be pushed and challenged, but they shouldn’t feel like a stranger in a foreign land.  

Ultimately, the post-high school experience is an important one to consider.  College is, in many respects, a safe choice.  It can also be constricting by pressing young men and women to choose a major and profession before they really have a sense of who they are, what they are passionate about, and how they would like to contribute to the world.  For some Christian students, college is almost certainly the right choice.  For others, time in missions might be more helpful.  Still others may be best served by entering the workforce.  College doesn’t need to be the default option.

My hope is that this rather lengthy discussion of college choice will be helpful. There is certainly much more that could be said. But, as someone who cares deeply about the next generation of the church, it seemed right to take the time to reflect on one of the biggest decisions parents and their children have to make.


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