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More Students Applying to America's Religious Colleges

These are tense times for many college-bound students in the United States, as they wait to hear whether they've been accepted at the college of their choice. For a growing number of such students, that choice is based on religion as well as academics. Journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley explores the trend in her new book, God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America.

The author visited some 20 religious colleges to write God on the Quad. They represented a range of faiths -- from Wheaton College, which is evangelical Christian…to Brigham Young University, a Mormon school…to Notre Dame University, one of the country's most prestigious Roman Catholic institutions.

But Ms. Riley says almost all the schools had at least one feature in common. "They really tried to integrate the faith into the classroom in different ways," she says. "They tried to get students to think about how that faith would impact them once they left the school. And the administrations of these schools are very much encouraging them to move to the cultural and political centers of the country, to move to the top of their professions."

The college quad, or quadrangle, is traditionally a place to gather and talk about all kinds of ideas. But, at the schools described in God in the Quad, students and faculty share a commitment to looking at everything -- including politics, science and the arts -- from a spiritual perspective. Ms. Riley writes that there are now more than 700 such colleges in the United States, with about 1.3 million graduates to date.

The author says applications to schools affiliated with the evangelical Christian, Roman Catholic and Mormon faiths are all on the rise. "The enrollment at schools that are evangelical has risen by 60% between 1990 and 2002," she reports. "I was talking to a lot of admissions officers who said that 10 [or] 15 years ago this process was really driven by parents who said, 'I want my kid to get the reinforcement of their faith.' And now it is much more student-driven. You get students who may belong to an evangelical youth group, and they're just flocking to these schools."

God in the Quad includes profiles of young people like Jenny Ebbeling, a recipient of the prestigious National Merit Scholarship award. She graduated recently from Baylor University, a Baptist-affiliated school in Waco, Texas. "I really wanted a Christian school," Ms. Ebbeling explains. "I'd heard about the world of academia becoming more liberal. I didn't want anything too dogmatic. I still wanted to be open to the world of ideas, and Baylor really was a perfect balance between the two."

Author Naomi Schaefer Riley immersed herself in the life of each campus she visited, sitting in on classes, going to parties and talking with professors. While academic programs varied from school to school, she found that most tended to offer a more traditional, structured curriculum than secular colleges.

"There is a sense on these campuses that there is a truth with a capital 'T' -- which has sort of been missing increasingly from secular universities, where the answers all depend on your values and your perspective," Ms. Riley says. "I think the students at religious colleges really do feel they can question a lot and they can get a variety of perspectives, but ultimately they are in pursuit of the truth."

A Harvard graduate and conservative Jew, Naomi Schaefer Riley found the students at religious colleges to be conscientious learners, bringing the same sense of purpose to academics they bring to their faith. They also tend to be more conservative, politically and socially, than students at secular schools.

"The students are more interested in marrying early," Ms. Riley says. "There's a lot less drinking. I didn't encounter any drugs. And one of the things that was pointed out to me was a lot of these students are coming from schools where they're used to having to defend their lives, and coming to these schools is almost a relief to them because they're surrounded by people who live the way they do."

Naomi Schaefer Riley acknowledges that religious colleges are sometimes insular places. Students who do not share the main faith on campus can feel uncomfortable. But if that means less diversity than you'd find on a secular campus, young people like Jenny Ebbeling still maintain they got a great education. "I think college is the time to get firm in what you believe," says Ms. Ebbeling. "The rest of the world is going to challenge you from then on out."

Ms. Ebbeling is now working at a California television station. She hopes to become a religion reporter, taking her place in the missionary generation that inspired Naomi Schaefer Riley's new book. "In terms of their professions, they're really bringing an ethical dimension to them," says Ms. Riley. "These students have often studied bioethics in school. They've talked about how their faith can impact decisions they'll have to make in everything from medicine to journalism."

And with America divided these days between red states and blue states, liberals and conservatives, believers and skeptics, Naomi Schaefer Riley believes the education and enthusiasm of the missionary generation should help bridge the gap.