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From Every Tribe, Tongue and Nation: Diversity and Christian Universities

When you think of Christian universities in the United States, you probably don’t think of a cultural melting pot. You might even think of a student body overwhelmed by WASPs, one that is only getting whiter, more affluent, and more protestant as Christian America is shrinking in the twenty-first century. If so, you’d be wrong. Today, Christian colleges and universities have cultivated student populations that are on par with flagship universities in terms of racial and socioeconomic diversity. Here’s how we know.

Using CollegeData, we’ve analyzed 140 Christian universities that are listed as members or affiliates of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU). For this list, a school is considered a Christian college or university if its curriculum is rooted in the arts and sciences and its mission is Christ-centered. In some cases, like when we talk about the distribution of minority students among student populations, we’ve compared demographic data from private, Christian universities with demographic data from flagship universities. In other cases, we’ve used data provided by Pew Research Center and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to determine if Christian universities reflect national numbers for the racial makeup and socioeconomic status of Christians throughout the United States.

The verdict? Despite declines in retention that are significantly higher for Christian universities than their flagship counterparts, the Christian college is alive and well in America today. And although its population may be sloping downward right now, it’s doing a better job of reflecting the growing diversity among Christian Americans every year.

A Brief History of Diversity at the American Christian College

Most private universities in the United States were historically founded as Christian institutions of higher learning. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are just three of the first many on a long list of American institutions that share this heritage.


During and after the Industrial Revolution, American colleges adopted more practical courses that would meet increasing economic demand for industrial ingenuity. In other words, they began offering more classes in science and technology than biblical theology. By the end of the American Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century, Christian universities were taking notes from Darwin in order to survive the paradigm shift from small, private colleges to the large, public, research-driven American universities we see today.

Not without catching their fair share of blowback for charges of apostasy in the form of secularization, public universities that championed these curricular changes ended up expanding educational opportunities for African Americans and women in the twentieth century. These policies at secular, public universities eventually trickled down to produce greater racial diversity nationwide, and which we see on Christian campuses today. This especially came true after the civil rights movement, which brought more conservative Christian institutions to their knees but repelled more liberal-minded Christian universities from their private, sectarian roots. As a result, religious tests were dropped from hiring procedures at many of these institutions, so that faculties became nearly as diverse as at state schools, while curricula began to focus almost exclusively on public concerns.

To this day, the declining number of sectarian Christian schools and rising number of public-minded Christian schools continues, slowly but steadily. Christian universities across the U.S. have become nearly as diverse as public flagship universities. Whites make up roughly the same share of the student population at Christian universities (71.1%) as at public, flagship universities (69.5%). This means that about 7 out of every 10 students on campus at both an average flagship and Christian university will be white, while roughly 3 out of every 10 will be people of color. This increased diversity reflects a broader trend noted by the Pew Research Center in a 2015 report, which found that American Christians, like the U.S. population as a whole, are becoming more racially diverse. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of non-white Americans identifying themselves as Christian increased from 29 to 34 percent, meaning that today, more than 3 in every 10 American Christians are also people of color.

Regional Differences in Diversity and Debt

Christian universities on CCCU’s list cluster in the eastern half of the United States, with concentrations in the upper Midwest (but especially Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio), the middle Northeast (but especially Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts), and all over the South (but especially Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Texas). States with the most Christian colleges are Texas and California, with 6 out of every 35 Christian universities sampled (i.e., ~17%) residing in either Texas or California, and the vast majority of those in California residing in Southern California.


Both Christian and flagship universities maintain majority White populations that mirror the majority (i.e., 69%) of non-Hispanic Whites in the United States. Of the 140 Christian universities sampled, three maintain student populations where the script is flipped, and Whites make up less than 30 percent of the population while people of color comprise over 70 percent. This can not be said for a single flagship university.

When it comes to monetary concerns, the percentage of financial need met for students at Christian universities weighs in at a majority of 70 percent, only 2 percent less than at flagship universities. Tuition also costs $3,016 less on average for students at Christian institutions, although graduates from Christian colleges and universities tend to leave campus with $1,497 more debt than graduates from flagship universities. Despite this discrepancy, Christian universities and flagship universities fall within $1000 of the national average for student loan debt in 2011, meaning that both types of institution represent an approximation of the national average for student debt in the same way they represent an approximation of the national non-Hispanic White population.

When it comes to progressive racial and economic representation, some Christian universities work ahead of the curve. Recognized by the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities for leadership in the realm of diversity, New York’s Nyack College stands out as an institution that has fostered a lower percentage of Whites and higher percentage of people of color on its campus since winning CCCU’s Racial Harmony award in 2001. As the most racially, ethnically, and denominationally rich Christian university on our list, one of their core values is being intentionally diverse, as it supports a student population that is 23.2 percent White, 30.3 percent Hispanic/Latino, 32.1% Black, and 8.9% Asian. Unfortunately, such progressive measures don’t come without costs. Average indebtedness for 2011 graduates of Nyack College is in the 90th percentile of Christian institutions sampled, weighing in at $37,577–that’s over $10,000 greater than average student debt for graduates of Christian colleges and universities. Nyack College’s retention rate is also 10 points below the average for Christian colleges and universities, an average which is already 12 points below the national retention rate for flagship universities. In these respects, Nyack College is representative of a broader trend taking place not only at Christian colleges and universities, but also at American churches nationwide: an exodus.

The Christian Retention Crisis

According to data from Pew Research Center, the overall number of Christians in the United States is estimated to have declined from 178 million to 172 million between 2007 and 2014. That means the percentage of Christians declined from around 78 percent of the U.S. populace to around 71 percent in under a decade. During the five-year-period between 2005 and 2010, the total number of self-reported Christian universities also appears to have declined from 970 to 900. This 7.2 percent loss-rate means subtracting fourteen Christian colleges and universities every year.


Both Christian and flagship universities show a correlation between higher tuitions and higher retention rates. Nearly 30 percent of Christian universities follow this trend and over 40 percent of flagship universities follow this trend. Correlations such as this can be explained by basic economics of education, which dictate that students tend to stay at schools with perceived higher reputations, where they also tend to spend more money and thus feel more invested in earning their degree. The problem is, with Christian universities, more than 40 percent of institutions fall below the trendline, meaning that a majority of Christian universities have lower than average retention rates. This is in direct opposition to the majority of flagship universities, which fall above the trendline.

So why are people leaving? If Christian universities are following the national trend of a declining Christian population, then the reason is likely due to the fact that fewer people between the ages of 18 and 24–i.e., the age group that makes up the majority of university populations–are identifying as Christian. After all, the median age for Christians has increased from 50 to 52 for mainline Protestants and 45 to 49 for mainline Catholics since 2007.

And according to Pew’s Religious Landscape Study, this rise in overall age and drop in overall Christian population is largely attributable to rapid growth in America’s number of young people (+13% between 2007 and 2014) who by and large consider themselves unaffiliated with any organized religion.

Other explanations attribute racial factors, such as the fact that more Whites identify as unaffiliated than Blacks and Hispanics, which translates into Whites being less likely to attend and more likely to leave Christian colleges and universities, and Blacks and Hispanics being more likely to attend and stay at such institutions. However, our research shows that Christian universities with higher Black populations tend to have lower than average retention rates. This would suggest that even as Christian colleges and universities are growing more diverse, they appear to be losing more students–most likely white ones, perhaps in a way similar to white flight after integration–which means that Christian colleges and universities still have a ways to go before achieving institutional equality.

Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

Using the percentage of people of color as our indicator, we’ve ranked the most racially diverse Christian and flagship universities. To get the percentage of people of color at these institutions, we first determined which had the lowest populations of Whites–all of these fell within the range of 20-48 percent–and then added those institutions’ population percentages for Hispanic, Black, Asian, American Indian, and Other racial groupings (i.e., Multi-Race, Race Unknown, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander). Those institutions with the highest percentage of people of color ranked highest on our list.


The top five Christian universities have a 5.2% higher percentage of people of color at their institutions than the top five flagship universities. This is in addition to the fact that, except for the number one position, each Christian university in a top five spot has a higher percentage of people of color than its corresponding flagship university in a top five spot. These numbers, if their pattern extended to lower ranking universities, would suggest that Christian universities are becoming more racially diverse than flagship universities. But, when we regard the larger sample, we see that only 1 in every 28 Christian universities has a higher percentage of people of color than Whites, whereas 1 in every 10 flagship universities has a higher percentage of people of color than Whites. That’s 3 percent of Christian universities compared to 10 percent of flagship universities that meet the criteria for being considered one of most racially diverse universities.

All this means is that a handful of Christian universities are climbing the ladder of racial diversity much faster than their peers, and sometimes even faster than their flagship counterparts. The majority of Christian universities and flagship universities alike, however, have a long way to climb before they catch up to being considered among the most racially diverse universities in the United States.

Better News

Taking a page from the books of those few universities who are skewing the curve higher often means intentionally recruiting higher numbers of both students and faculty of color. Universities that have taken this initiative mark a high rung on the ladder, a mark that needs to be reached if Christian colleges and universities want to reflect the growing national numbers of Christians who are also racial minorities.

The good news is that both students and faculty alike at Christian colleges and universities are taking initiatives that will ensure racial minorities are better represented on Christian campuses. At the behest of CCCU’s Diversity Commission, Christian colleges and universities are campaigning for diversity initiatives that include hiring more Diversity Officers, allotting more financial aid to first-generation students and students of color, as well as increasing the number of tenure-track faculty positions for scholars of color. This way, as the population of people of color continues to grow, so will their representation among institutions such as the CCCU and Christian higher education as a whole.

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