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Colleges and Universities with Religious Affiliations

Characteristics, Relationships, Leadership and Control, Issues for the Future

The landscape of higher education in North America first began to take shape at the start of the colonial period as religious communities and individual religious leaders realized the need to bring Western education to what was for them a newly discovered land. The motivation for the education varied. Some communities began schools as a means for training religious leaders. The first college, founded in Massachusetts Bay Colony, was Harvard. Evolving from a Puritan tradition now incorporated into the United Church of Christ, Harvard published a brochure in 1643, explaining the college's purpose as "to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches."

Religiously affiliated schools and colleges expressed their missions in different manners as they developed in the colonies and across the frontier; all pursued their work with energetic mission. For some, the educational mission was to assure that "children of the faith" had the opportunity to grow intellectually in remote locations across the frontier. For others, the mission was to create educational opportunity for all persons in order that they might develop their God-given intellect. Often the two approaches were combined, as noted in the challenge Methodist Episcopal Bishop Francis Asbury presented to every Methodist congregation in America in 1791: "give the key of knowledge in a general way to your children, and those of the poor in the vicinity of your small towns and villages" (Michael et al., p. 13).

Religiously affiliated colleges often combined the mission of education with the desire to train individuals in religious practice and to evangelize others. This mission is reflected in words by Disciples of Christ educator Alexander Campbell (1788–1866), "Colleges and churches go hand in hand in the progress of Christian civilization" (p. 61).

Religiously affiliated educational institutions often developed in response to social changes. For example, the world's first college charted to grant degrees to women was Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia (1836). At the conclusion of the Civil War, the Freedman's Aid Society responded to absence of educational opportunity for newly freed slaves by creating institutes and colleges throughout the South. Many of these institutions continue their critical role in education in the early twenty-first century. Often church-related colleges began as academies or seminaries and then grew to college or university status. Many had short lives, closing as the result of social, demographic, political, and–quite often–financial reasons. Some colleges severed their relationship with the religious communities and continue in the twenty-first century as quality independent institutions. Among these are Vanderbilt University, Auburn University, University of Southern California, Oberlin College, and Princeton University. In 1881, 80 percent of the colleges in the United States were church related and private. In 2001, 20 percent of the colleges–approximately 980 institutions–had connection to a religious tradition. The "Digest of Educational Statistics, 2000," indicates that sixty-six religious groups in the United States currently sponsor colleges or universities. These institutions enroll more than 1.5 million students.


Religiously affiliated colleges and universities defy a monolithic description. They are as diverse as their religious traditions and the higher education scene in the United States. Although most are liberal arts colleges with enrollments between 800 and 2,000 students, church-related higher education also includes large research universities (Boston University, Notre Dame, for example), medical colleges, professional schools, two-year colleges, theological seminaries, and Bible colleges. Many religiously affiliated colleges regularly are highly ranked in various "best colleges" ratings in the United States.

Among the nearly 1,000 colleges and universities with religious affiliation are 65 institutions affiliated with the Jewish faith. Although most of these institutions are rabbinic and talmudic colleges and institutes, some are major well-known universities and colleges in the United States. Yeshiva University, founded in 1886 in New York City, is recognized as the oldest and most comprehensive educational institution under Jewish auspices in America. Yeshiva and Brandeis University, founded in 1948, regularly are listed among the top universities in the United States. Jewish educational institutions in the United States reflect a centuries-long commitment to learning. Like most religiously affiliated colleges and universities, Jewish colleges and universities offer degrees in several fields of study. Many Jewish colleges and universities have joined in partnership through the Association of Colleges of Jewish Studies, an organization committed to serving the educational and religious needs of the North American Jewish community.

While related to and supported by specific religious traditions, most colleges welcome students from a variety of faith traditions–or no faith tradition. The student bodies include representation from ethnic and international communities. The institutions' student-centered focus generally assures most students will graduate in four years.

The typical religiously affiliated college is residential, although some colleges have developed satellite learning and evening programs to meet the needs of nontraditional students. The residential approach is characterized by a commitment to a student-centered learning and living community where curricular and cocurricular programs combine to emphasize a holistic approach to human development and understanding. The colleges invest significant financial and personnel resources to foster personal worth and dignity within a diverse and just community, leading to an emphasis on lifelong learning, social responsibility, and service. Community service is an integral part of the colleges' philosophies.

The curricular focus on the liberal arts and a solid commitment to general education challenges students to integrate learning from a variety of disciplines. Most colleges require students to enroll in a prescribed number of hours of academic study in religion, philosophy, or ethics. For other institutions, the study of religion is optional. Cocurricular religious activities are present on all campuses. These include worship, fellowship, study of the sacred texts of the religious tradition, service, and religious support. At one time nearly all colleges related to the Christian tradition required weekly or daily attendance at chapel; such a requirement now is the rare exception rather than the rule. Campus religious programming is coordinated by a chaplain, usually a clergy or lay minister in the affiliated religious tradition. As a staff member of the institution, the chaplain participates in various administrative and programmatic aspects of the college's or university's life, thereby helping to infuse the concerns and perspective of the affiliated religious community into the greater life of the college. Although the institution and the chaplain may be from a particular religious tradition, cocurricular religious programs at most religiously affiliated institutions support programming reflecting the diverse religious needs of the student population. Many colleges arrange for representatives of other faith traditions to offer programs on campus.


The nature and expression of the educational institution's relationship with religious bodies vary greatly. A few institutions are controlled by the denomination; others share only a nominal relationship. Some traditions have provisions for colleges to acknowledge an "historical" relationship, acknowledging the college's founding by a religious tradition while declaring there is no current, direct relationship with the religious tradition. Most religiously affiliated colleges regularly and actively engage in shaping a dynamic relationship reflecting on changing needs in society, the church, and education.

At least two religious traditions, United Methodist and Seventh Day Adventist, conduct regular reviews of their related institutions to assess their vitality and their expression of church relatedness. The University Senate, the United Methodist review agency, was founded in 1892, and is one of the oldest review agencies in the United States. The Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, although not part of a denominational structure, reviews and accredits several schools within the Jewish tradition.

The quality of the relationship between the religious community and the college is in constant redefinition. James Tunstead Burtchaell claims colleges and universities are disengaging from their religious foundations, becoming more secular in their approach to education. George M. Marsden characterizes colleges and universities as moving from a perspective of "Protestant establishment" to one of "established nonbelief," a move toward embracing secularization and diminishing religious tradition. Not all individuals agree fully with those perspectives. Merrimon Cuninggim describes relationships between Christian denominations and their colleges as being in a time when both church officials and college leaders are reassessing the nature of the relationship in light of trends in churches, in colleges, and in society. Conversations among church and academic leaders can lead to renewed understanding of what it means to be religiously affiliated. Cuninggim distinguishes three phases of the relationship between the college and the church traditions that founded them: (1) church as senior partner, college as junior partner, recognizing the college's need for the church's direct support; (2) a time of equality, when neither college nor church groups has an upper hand of the other in normal situations; and,(3) the college as senior partner, more in control of its own destiny. Most institutions fall in this final category and are no longer dependent on the church for financial resources and leadership.

Critical to discussions regarding the church–college relationship is understanding common and distinctive missions. Although each share a common genesis regarding their sense of mission and service, the primary mission of the church is addressing spiritual and communal needs and responsibilities; within that same call to service is the college's primary responsibility to provide quality education reflective of the sponsoring religious community's values. Churches and their colleges must respect and appreciate the distinctive mission of each partner. Understanding and expressing that relationship is an issue of constant concern.

Since the 1970s, Southern Baptists have engaged with their colleges, universities, and seminaries in often contentious discussions regarding relationship and control. Several institutions have opted to withdraw from formal relationships with the Southern Baptists in order to reduce control of the institutions. Catholic colleges and universities are engaged in discussion with the church's bishops regarding Pope John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document outlining the church's position on the relationship between the church and the teaching activity of its universities and colleges. The Presbyterian, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, and Nazarene churches are engaged in conversations with church judicatories and college and university leaders to clarify and affirm statements reflecting a partnership appropriate to the twenty-first century.

Since 1996 the Lilly Foundation-supported Rhodes Consultation on the Future of the Church-Related College has involved ninety church-related institutions in ongoing discussion regarding the church's higher education mission in the postmodern world. Faculty, chaplains, and administrators are engaged in critical reflection regarding how church-relatedness is expressed in the life of colleges and universities.

Leadership and Control

Nearly all religiously affiliated colleges and universities are legally independent institutions. Sponsoring bodies usually have representatives on the institution's board of trustees. This tradition assures there is representation from the religious body and the perspective of the religious tradition is heard. The number of seats specified for faith community representatives varies. In some situations, all trustees must be members of the sponsoring tradition; a few institutions have no specified spaces. In most instances, the percentage of representatives ranges from 2 to 60 percent. Often the regional judicatory leader and the local pastor from the area are ex officio representatives on trustee boards. In most cases trustees are elected by the college's board of trustees, however, the by-laws of some colleges require trustees to be confirmed by the sponsoring denominational body.

Although many presidents of the 980 religiously affiliated colleges and universities are members of the sponsoring religious tradition, such membership is not required at all colleges. Such latitude may seem contrary to religiously affiliated higher education. Colleges seek the best presidential candidate, based on a variety of capabilities. The vitality of a college's religious affiliation, however, depends significantly on the support and encouragement that its "faith tradition" receives from the college president and other senior leaders at the institution.

Some traditions require a higher degree of staff relationship with the sponsoring religious body or association. The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities requires its ninety-five member colleges and universities to fulfill specific criteria. Among them is the requirement for a publicly stated mission based upon the centrality of Christ as well as a hiring policy requiring all faculty and administrators have a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Similarly, the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges requires each member college to annually subscribe to a statement of faith.

Religiously affiliated colleges and universities also receive expressions of partnerships and support from their sponsoring tradition. Financial support for the institutions usually represents less than 1 percent of their budgets; this is a radical decrease from the 1980s. Several faith traditions also manage scholarship and loan programs for students of the tradition to attend an affiliated college. Occasionally funds are designated to support the college's out-reach to previously underserved ethnic and economic populations. This assistance supports the colleges and their commitment to educational access.

Many religious groups provide structural and programmatic support for the colleges, offering consultative services, sponsoring workshops, and facilitating programmatic initiatives. Among the churches supporting their colleges in this manner are the Mennonites, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Nazarenes, United Church of Christ, Southern Baptists, Disciples, Catholics, and United Methodists. Associations of presidents in various religious traditions provide a network of support for these leaders.

Issues for the Future

Religiously affiliated colleges continue to have a significant role in the education life of the United States and the world. Their commitment to a just and value-centered living and learning community, with a commitment to the liberal arts and civic leadership, is a valuable alternative to other approaches to education. The clarification of the relationship between the college and their religious tradition will continue to be an issue. Some colleges will opt out of a relationship with the religious bodies. Many others will understand the relationship as a central part of their identity, giving the college a unique role as the provider of value-centered education, personal integrity, and social responsibility.

Other religiously affiliated institutions may disappear from the scene for another reason: financial resources. The smaller size of these institutions, the dwindling financial support from their denominations, and the absence of state subsidies afforded state institutions, places some of the colleges in precarious financial situations. The challenge will be for the colleges and the sponsoring religious groups to join together to secure the resources necessary to continue their significant educational role, reflected by the invitation of Saint Augustine, Intellege ut credas; crede ut intellegas (understand so that you may believe; believe so that you may understand), an invitation to unite the endeavor of intelligence and faith.


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