Prior to the advent of public education in the U.S., most lower and higher-level institutions of learning were private and/or religious. The majority of early U.S. colleges and universities were founded by religious orders for the purpose of training future ministers and missionaries. This was true even of many of the vaunted Ivy League colleges: Congregationalists founded Harvard and Yale; Presbyterians began Princeton, and Baptists established Brown.
Over time many of these religious affiliations were dropped, becoming artifacts of the passage of time. At present some 800 out of nearly 4000 U.S. colleges claim a religious affiliation, with some maintaining a loose historical connection and others more serious relationships with a denomination or faith. The largest grouping of religious-affiliated colleges is Catholic with 221 schools. In descending order the rest are Methodist (94), Baptist (67), Presbyterian (59), Lutheran (34), and Jewish (21).
Why would a student who belongs to a different church or denomination, or one who is agnostic, or spiritual-rather-than-religious want to consider a school with a religious affiliation? First of all, many of these schools are academically excellent, offering a high quality education, superb facilities, and great faculty. Some religious colleges were founded by orders with long and honored educational traditions, like the Jesuits. Second, for the quality of the education received, religious-based colleges often offer good value, particularly as private institutions, which can be among the priciest U.S. colleges. Third, such schools often have a coherent campus culture with many linkages between academics and campus life. Educational researchers have long observed this to be a key feature of student success as measured by college freshman retention rates. Fourth, many, although not all religious-based schools are smaller, with low-student-to-faculty ratios, another strong and desirable characteristic associated with excellent instruction.
Finally, many of the fears about religious institutions are simply wrong and stereotypical. Most of these schools aren’t out to indoctrinate or convert students. Many don’t require chapel attendance, and either don’t have religion or theology curricular requirements, or allow such a requirement to be fulfilled in incredibly imaginative and expansive ways. To assess the religiosity of a religious college, should this be a concern, peruse their website, visit, and ask questions.
From a recent published list of the “twenty best” religiously affiliated colleges in the U.S. from Forbes Magazine, here is a sub-set: Centre College, Danville KY (Presbyterian); Boston College, MA (Catholic); Kenyon College, Gambier OH (Episcopalian); DePauw University, Greencastle IN (Methodist); Geoffrey Fox College, Newburg OR (Quaker); Doane College, Crete NE (United Church of Christ); Salem College, Winston-Salem NC (Moravian); Transylvania University, Lexington, KY (Disciples of Christ). Among my personal favorites from my college tours and recent client acceptances I would include Earlham College, Richmond IN (Quaker); Hope College, Holland MI (Reformed Church); Villanova University, Philadelphia PA (Catholic); Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma WA; Santa Clara University, Santa Clara CA (Catholic), and Gonzaga University, Spokane WA, (Catholic).