Do Christian Colleges Have an 'Image Problem'? Study Reveals Surprising Statistics

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(Photo: Baylor Photography)Baptist-affiliated Baylor University in Waco, Texas

What is America's perception of faith-based colleges and universities? According to a recent study, most Americans — Christian and non-Christian alike — hold a positive view of such institutions, meaning Christian higher education does not really have an "image problem," as some have feared.

In collaboration with the Association for Biblical Higher Education, the Barna Group asked American adults a number of questions about the purpose of a college education in a study titled "Why Go to College?" The survey had a sample size of 1,011 adults, aged 18 and older, and includes analysis from telephone interviews, online surveys and discussions with thousands of students, parents, pastors and institutional leaders.

The study found that just over half (54 percent) of all U.S. adults have a positive overall impression of Christian colleges or universities. Roughly half of all U.S. adults have a positive overall impression of Bible colleges (45 percent), while about one in eight has a negative impression of Bible colleges (12 percent). The remainder of respondents said their impressions are neither positive nor negative, or they don't know.

Most people associate Bible colleges and Christian colleges or universities with the terms "Christian community" and "spiritual learning," the study found, with more than half of all U.S. adults saying these are accurate descriptions of both kinds of institutions. "Moral" and "conservative" also describe both institutions, according to roughly one-third of U.S. adults, and about one in five says "making a difference" or "too religious" are accurate.

Because Americans are generally positive or neutral about faith-based colleges or universities, the authors said, it's clear that such institutions don't have an "image problem," the study notes.

"[With] so many increasingly disengaged from Christianity and church life, the plurality of those who are neutral is no surprise," the authors say. "For many people, Christian institutions of any kind are simply not on the radar."

Barna and his colleagues urged the broader Christian higher education community to take note of such findings, as how Bible colleges and Christian universities are viewed makes a "significant difference when it comes to college choice."

Still, the study's findings may surprise some, as Christian institutions' views on gender and sexuality, the sanctity of life, human origins, and the inerrancy of Scripture become increasingly unpopular in today's postmodern society. As Barna notes, "Christianity is no longer the 'default position' of Americans." But as America continues to change, Christian institutions' interpretation of the Bible must not.

Dr. Mark Allen, Th.M., D.Min., Ph.D.; professor and Chair of Biblical Studies at Rawlings School of Divinity, told The Christian Post that more than ever before, Christian universities must prepare students to think through cultural issues and engage others in conversation.

When students have a deep understanding of their own beliefs, Allen said, they are able to express aspects of the Christian worldview which affect hot-button issues like race, religious freedom, human dignity, the plight of the poor and vulnerable, and ethical decision-making.

"What we would like our students to be able to do is actually to listen and to learn from the other side, while deeply understanding their own Kingdom convictions so they can understand that there are some points of connection that you and I have," he said. "Having understood the person well, then we can say, 'Did you know that some of your views on human freedom and your opinions against human trafficking have actually been generated out of the Christian belief in the image of God and that every person is to be loved and valued?'"

"We teach our students to have a big picture, big narrative view of who God is so they can demonstrate to other people that the Christian faith does truly lead to human flourishing and has more explanatory power than other worldviews," he continued. "But it begins with listening."