The importance of religious universities in the ecosystem of education

Written by William C. Duncan

October 7, 2022

Conservationists remind us that we must take great care to avoid disrupting a healthy and diverse ecosystem for fear of disrupting or losing beneficial species whose contributions we may not fully recognize or understand. New research suggests something similar in the ecosystem of higher education.

Higher education has deep religious roots. One of the nation’s foremost authorities on religious higher education explained: “The churches sponsored higher education before there were any state-sponsored colleges or universities; indeed, before there were states. For most of the history of the nation those Christian foundations set the patterns and carried most, then much, of the enrollment.”

For more than a century, many of the most prominent schools that began with religious missions have abandoned those and become wholly secular in orientation. Despite this, “out of eight million students enrolled in undergraduate bachelor’s degree programs in the United States in 2004, over one million were attending religiously affiliated colleges or universities.”

Beyond numbers, in the ecology of higher education, religious universities make a distinctive and critical contribution.

A recent edition of Deseret Magazine focused on this unique role of religious universities noting some of these unique contributions in areas like the liberal arts, community engagement, accessibility and innovation.

There is also some empirical research that points to intriguing evidence of the impact of religious higher education on students.

Cardus, a Canadian research institution, published the research of two academics on “a nationally representative sample of 1,332 college-educated US adults in their twenties and thirties” who were asked “to reflect on their post-secondary experiences.”

The research found a number of ways in which students of private religious colleges and universities experienced significant benefits compared to peers in public or private secular schools. For example, these students were:

  • More likely to participate in intercollegiate sports, academic honor societies and political organizations (and far more likely than those at public universities to participate in community service groups).
  • Less likely to become drunk, use marijuana and engage in sexual intercourse.
  • More likely to report their faculty as being in the top quartile for acting as mentors, friends and religious counselors.
  • More likely to experience a sense of belonging at the school and to feel they had faculty support.
  • More likely to see directly helping others as a very or extremely important feature of a job.
  • More likely to agree that caring for the environment, participating in the political process, taking action against injustice, and helping people in other counties experiencing violence and poverty are moral obligations.
  • More likely to volunteer after graduation.
  • More likely to be married.

Additionally, another study by one of the co-authors of this research found “religious colleges may provide a ‘moral community’ that could reduce the risk of sexual violence.”

Two things stand out from these research findings for public policy regarding religiously affiliated universities:

  1. Despite a political narrative that connects religion and conservative values, this research suggests that religious institutions of higher education encourage or facilitate their students to embrace of both stereotypically liberal (caring for the environment and acting against injustice) and conservative (getting married and finding belonging in community) priorities. The political narrative may be misleading the public by capturing only a part of religion or a segment of religious individuals.
  2. This research highlights how religiously affiliated universities help contribute many things – more volunteering in the community, less substance abuse, more social capital, prioritizing helping other people, political participation and assisting victims of violence and poverty – that benefit everyone in society. In other words, the expression and application of religion – and by extension, protecting the expression and application of religion – improves the lives of the religious and the non-religious alike.

Other private and public schools made important contributions as well and their graduates have better outcomes in some things than those who attended religious schools, but the research suggests that there are important and distinctive contributions faith-based colleges and universities make.

As the environmentally conscious wisely remind us, disrupting an ecosystem for the sake of a specific outcome can do broad damage to every member of that ecosystem through unintended consequences that are often hard to see. The same is true in education. Policymakers, regulators, accreditors and academics must carefully preserve the ability of religious universities to carry out their work of providing unique and uniquely beneficial contributions in the ecosystem of education.

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