As throngs of college students make the post-Labor Day dash back to campus, thousands of high school seniors are eagerly thumbing through university prospectuses, looking for the perfect match. Does the school offer the right classes? What's the meal plan like? The extracurricular activities? The religious affiliation and offerings?

Religion? That's right. For many, religion is a basic consideration when it comes to choosing a college. "I'm a Christian, so I wanted to get a Christian education," says Dawne Visbeek, a junior at the Moody Bible Institute. "The teachers here take an issue and give a Christian point of view. So that helps me get a better understanding of my world and my faith."
Beliefnet hit the streets of L.A. to ask students: "How do you deal with religious diversity at college?"

"It's not really an issue as long as no one minds that I'm not religious."
--Tyson, freshman

"I get harassed by a lot of people handing out papers--they chase you down. It's like, Christians attack everyone, and Jews attack people who look Jewish. I wish they'd at least choose different people for some variety."
--Katherine, sophomore

"Accept it."
--Amanda, senior

"Our school is pretty diverse, so religious issues come up--but mostly in philosophy or religion class. Usually it's just a classroom debate, and that's fine."

--Renée and Yadira, seniors

"I don't know--I don't let it get to me. Some people have discussions, but they just don't make sense."
--Steve, freshman

On the other hand, Brad Helfand, president of the Northwestern University Hillel Association--the major Jewish campus organization--says a non-religious school helps him to understand his beliefs better and gives him a chance to compare his faith with other students. Here are some questions the prospective student should keep in mind when deciding on a religious school: What's the difference between a religious school and a school with religious roots? Many colleges and universities were established with a particular religion or denomination in mind. Princeton University was founded by Presbyterians and the College of William and Mary was established by Anglicans. But religion no longer plays a significant role in the day-to-day activities of these universities. However, schools such as the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Yeshiva University are considered religious schools because every aspect of campus life and the curriculum is seen through a religious lens. What kind of classes do I want to take?

John Veit, a student at the University of Notre Dame, points out that religious schools require you to take courses you might not want: "The requirements here are the same as other schools," he warns, "but you also have to take two theology courses from the Judeo-Christian tradition." But at a religious school, you can also find classes that might not show up in your everyday state college course catalog. "I'm able to get the classes I want here," Visbeek shrugs. "At a secular college, I couldn't take biblical courses." At most schools, you won't get to study sacred texts so exclusively, she says: "I wanted to get a biblical perspective--I've already gotten the other perspective."

How am I with rules? While all colleges have rules, religious colleges have rules--some prohibit dancing, card playing, even thong underwear. Some students claim that the social etiquette of a religious college keeps them straight. Veit of Notre Dame laughs: "It's not like they force religion here, but the atmosphere is traditional. You can't have the opposite sex over on weeknights or weekends. It's funny: They're really lax about drinking, but there's zero tolerance for drugs." If you have trouble sticking to your guns, those rules can power up your resolve. On the other hand, some folks say that a "do what you want" atmosphere helps them keep their practice strong. Helfand, for example, says the freedom of Northwestern helps him exercise his faith more creatively. "We try to make Hillel activities fun--sometimes we'll have a 'Murder Mystery Shabbat Dinner,' and once we had a romance-theme Shabbat for couples. We go to Cubs games, bowling, miniature golfing...and we get great speakers, like Hedda Nussbaum and MTV's Dr. Drew."

Do I want an education outside the classroom as well?

Hanging out exclusively with the like-minded can get dull. Veit, for one, frets that religious college doesn't offer much student diversity: "The atmosphere here [at Notre Dame] is traditional," he admits, "and the students are pretty homogenous. It gets to be not the greatest thing. But you're randomly assigned to your first-year dorm, so that helps." Visbeek agrees that the lack of diversity at religious schools is a drag. "When I'm at school," she explains, "I'm just around other Christians, so I don't have a chance to share with others."

An ultra-diverse school may offer some tests of your faith. As Helfand explains: "We have had problems with hate crimes here--mostly from people off-campus, including Matthew Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator. Fortunately, the Jewish community here spoke out against him. And students here are pretty intellectual, so they didn't really believe his stuff." While that may be one extreme example of dealing with diversity, the case of five Orthodox Jewish students at Yale is a more common culture-clash experience. The "Yale Five" sued the university, claiming it's policy requiring students to live in coed dorms violated their civil rights--forcing them to break Orthodox Jewish rules on chastity and modesty.

Am I willing to attend a religious school even if I'm not religious?

National Universities:

Tier 1:

  • Georgetown University
  • Yeshiva University

    Tier 2:

  • Brigham Young University
  • Catholic University
  • Fordham University
  • Loyola University, Chicago
  • Southern Methodist University
  • Texas Christian University
  • Many students say they went to the college that would give them the education they wanted, regardless of religious affiliation. Indeed, even though John doesn't consider himself religious, he decided to attended Notre Dame because of its reputation for academic excellence. And there's no need to sacrifice academics for religion, since many religious colleges are ranked in the nation's top universities.

    Ultimately, college is a time for both your mind and your faith to change and grow. You have four years to work on your faith--to nurture it, test it, or experiment with it, whether you're at a religious school or a secular college.

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