Religiously affiliated colleges in the U.S.
January 3, 2022
The first colleges established in North America were essentially training seminaries for Catholic and Protestant clergymen. Harvard College, today the undergraduate college of Harvard University, was founded in 1636 by Puritans. Its 1642 mission statement was clearly evangelical: “Everyone shall consider as the main end of his life and studies, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life. John 17:3.” Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Georgetown followed, established by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Catholics, respectively.
The larger, public colleges founded in the 19th century were not explicitly religiously affiliated but were essentially Protestant. Many U.S. Catholic universities were founded in reaction to this implicit Protestantism.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, colleges affiliated with various denominations flourished across the country. These were mostly small liberal arts colleges, centered on religious and moral training. Formal religious training had migrated to seminaries and divinity schools. The larger, public colleges founded in the 19th century were not explicitly religiously affiliated but were essentially Protestant. Many U.S. Catholic universities were founded in reaction to this implicit Protestantism.
Most religiously affiliated colleges today accept students of all faiths, including secular students. Approximately 16% of freshmen at religious colleges chose “none” when asked about their religious affiliations. Some religious colleges even have secular students’ organizations, such as Kenyon College, an Episcopalian school in Ohio. Schools with dress codes and honor codes that mention behavior, especially sexuality or religious practices, are likely stricter and less appropriate for secular students or students of other faiths. Those without dress codes and which focus on academic honesty in their honor codes are more likely to be inclusive environments for students of all backgrounds.
Students choose religiously-affiliated colleges for many reasons. Jeremie Oliver is a healthcare professional and biomedical engineer. He attended Brigham Young University, the largest Mormon-affiliated school in the country. He writes, “I chose to attend BYU for my first undergraduate degree because the campuses offer a unique college atmosphere very conducive to learning and personal development. The environment cultivated at BYU campuses allows you to stay very focused on your academic and personal goals without many of the typical college scene distractions commonly found at other universities. It’s definitely a special place.”
“The environment cultivated at BYU campuses allows you to stay very focused on your academic and personal goals without many of the typical college scene distractions commonly found at other universities.”
Christian colleges and universities
American Protestantism distinguished itself from Catholicism by emphasizing the voluntary nature of faith. Early protestant colleges therefore focused on character-building and imparting moral and religious values. Graduates, who tended to be from privileged families, were expected to become social and religious leaders in their communities. Higher education was seen as a privilege that came with responsibilities. The protestant college education usually culminated in a capstone course taught by the president, where the expected doctrine and moral virtues were recapitulated.
Following the end of the Civil War, the typical college education expanded to include vocational and practical training. New colleges centered around ethnic denomination were established. An example of this is St. Olaf College in Minnesota, which originally served Norwegian Lutherans. St. Olaf remains a thriving liberal arts college to this day and maintains its religious affiliation.
American universities and colleges began adopting the German model of higher education and moved away from the development of character and towards scholarly research and inquiry.
Throughout the 20th century, Protestant colleges and universities began secularizing. This meant more inclusivity, with Catholic and Jewish students (the 2 largest non-Protestant religious communities) being accepted at colleges that they were previously barred from attending. American Protestantism split into 2 factions; the first being more conservative and fundamentalist, and the other more liberal and modern. Fundamentalists were concerned about the effect of scientific research on faith, while the more liberal side saw science as a type of revelation. American universities and colleges began adopting the German model of higher education and moved away from the development of character and towards scholarly research and inquiry. Fundamentalists began withdrawing from higher education and founded their own churches, schools, radio stations, and publishing houses.
Today, Christian universities can be divided into 2 broad categories: those that have retained their evangelical mission and those that remain mostly symbolically religiously affiliated. In 1976, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) was created. The CCCU has connected over 150 campuses in the U.S. and Canada, and over 30 more from an additional 19 countries. The largest concentrations of CCCU schools are in California, Texas, and Illinois. These campuses are united by the following CCCU mission statement:
“We are committed to supporting, protecting, and promoting the value of integrating the Bible – divinely inspired, true, and authoritative – throughout all curricular and co-curricular aspects of the educational experience on our campuses, including teaching and research. We support a coherent approach to education in which the development of the mind, spirit, body, and emotions are seamlessly woven together in the quest not just for knowledge but also for wisdom.”
Catholic and Jesuit colleges and universities
The oldest Catholic university in the United States is Georgetown, founded in 1789 in Washington, D.C. by Bishop John Carroll. It continues to be operated by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) but has accepted students of other faiths since its inception. Most other Catholic colleges and universities were founded in the 19th and early 20th century to accommodate the growing number of Catholics in the United States.
In 1899, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) was founded by 53 delegates from Catholic colleges throughout the country. The ACCU continues to serve as a unified representative of U.S. Catholic higher education. Contact with the Catholic hierarchy is maintained through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Congregation for Catholic Education of the Holy See.
In the 2022 school year, Notre Dame plans to implement a new core curriculum with the most significant changes to their general education requirements since the late 1960s. The school decided to create a more integrated liberal arts education with the inclusion of broader course categories to address questions related to faith in the 21st century. Similar changes were recently made at Boston College, another Catholic institution. These changes reflect the tendency of Catholic higher education institutions to seek integration with contemporary topics in academia.
This attitude is highlighted in an excerpt from Notre Dame’s mission statement:
“Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith. The University welcomes all areas of scholarly activity as consonant with its mission, subject to appropriate critical refinement. There is, however, a special obligation and opportunity, specifically as a Catholic university, to pursue the religious dimensions of all human learning.”
Although it is difficult to nail down the precise number of Catholic colleges and universities, in the 2018/2019 school year, 226 Catholic institutions participated in federal student financial aid programs. There are several other Catholic colleges that do not participate in these programs, totaling approximately 260 Catholic institutions of higher education in the U.S. Most are small to mid-sized, with 1,000-10,000 students. Approximately 46% of freshmen at Catholic 4-year colleges identified as Roman Catholic in 2019. Catholic colleges have generally retained religious language in their mission statements, but programs are far more secular than at evangelical Christian universities, and many even omit explicit mention of the Catholic church.
Rayelle Davis is a licensed clinical professional counselor and writer in Maryland. She attended Duquesne, a Catholic university in Pittsburg. She writes, “When I was a child it was important for my parents to send me to a Catholic school because they saw that as giving me the best education possible. I think that is why Duquesne University was on my mind years later when I was applying to graduate school. Since I was raising a family, I had to stay relatively close to home. Duquesne offered a Saturday-only program along with an evening program for counseling students which worked out well for me.”
When I was a child it was important for my parents to send me to a Catholic school because they saw that as giving me the best education possible. I think that is why Duquesne University was on my mind years later when I was applying to graduate school.
Jewish colleges and universities
With the rapid growth and increasing secularization of higher education in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish students could, on paper, attend the institutions of their choice. In practice, many colleges and universities privately maintained quotas for “minority” populations. In 1922, Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell admitted to a 10% quota for Jewish students at Harvard. In 1945, Dartmouth president E.M. Hopkins stated that “Dartmouth is a Christian college founded for the christianization of its students,” by way of justifying the college’s quota.
The earliest Jewish institutions of higher learning in the U.S. were focused on teacher training of staff for Jewish elementary and secondary schools. In 1856, banker and philanthropist Hyman Gratz, in collaboration with the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia, opened Gratz College. Originally a Hebrew teachers’ college, today it’s a private liberal arts college in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. Like most Jewish-affiliated colleges still in operation, Gratz also offers non-credit adult education and cultural programs.
The Baltimore Hebrew College and Teachers Training School opened in 1919. It eventually came to be known as the Baltimore Hebrew University, and finally merged with Townson University to become the Baltimore Hebrew Institute, in 2009. Today they offer post-baccalaureate certificates and master’s degrees focused on Jewish education, as well as non-credit courses in Jewish scholarship.
Brandeis University was founded the following year in Waltham, Massachusetts. The university was named after Louis Dembitz Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court.
One of the first Jewish-affiliated universities in the U.S. was the American Jewish University (AJU), originally 2 separate institutions: the University of Judaism and the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. It opened in 1947 in Los Angeles. Brandeis University was founded the following year in Waltham, Massachusetts. The university was named after Louis Dembitz Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court. In 1961, the university earned Phi Beta Kappa accreditation, which is held by less than 10% of U.S. colleges and universities. It continues to operate as a private research university with a liberal arts focus.
Other well-known Jewish universities still in operation are Hebrew College, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Yeshiva University. There are approximately 90 Jewish-affiliated colleges and universities in the U.S. What sets them apart is the unique way they are tied to the broader Jewish community, with most offering Hebrew language training, as well as rabbinical schools, cantorial programs, and adult and youth education programs.
Universities and colleges with other religious affiliations
Throughout their history, religiously affiliated colleges were created in response to the needs of a specific community and America’s religious pluralism. Although many of the institutions discussed so far were created early in the country’s history, new religious colleges continue to be founded.
- In 2009, Zaytuna College, the first fully accredited Islamic college in the U.S. opened its doors. Located in Berkley, California, Zaytuna offers a liberal arts program that integrates Islamic scholarly tradition with Western academia.
- There are 4 American Buddhist universities: the Dharma Realm Buddhist University, the University of the West, the Soka University of America, and the Naropa University. All offer education in the practices and philosophy of Buddhism in combination with liberal arts and professional degrees.
- The Hindu University of America was established in 1989. The university uses the term “Hindu” to signify all Vedic knowledge systems, traditions, and cultures. The university is non-sectarian and non-denominational, meaning it does not promote any single Hindu perspective.
- Brigham Young University, founded in 1875, is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. The university requires 4 Bible study courses, enforces a strict dress code, and requires yearly ecclesiastical endorsements.
- There are 15 colleges and universities with Quaker origins, including Cornell University, Johns Hopkins and Bryn Mawr. Most have evolved into diverse institutions, although some, including Friends University in Wichita, Kansas and Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana, have retained their Quaker roots.
The tradition of religiously affiliated colleges in the U.S. is thriving and, in many cases, adapting to the changing world. While students interested in the academic study of religion may choose virtually any college or university that offers programs in religious studies, attending a religiously affiliated college often provides a cultural and spiritual community students may be seeking.