How to Choose a College

How I decided between attending a Christian or secular university.

Evangeline Vergo
Photo by Pasquale R. Mingarelli

Every color, size and shape was represented in 5 heaping piles of university brochures sorted by type: Christian, Ivy League, in-state, out-of-state and even military academies. I had compiled their basic information on a chart and listed the pros and cons of each.

But sitting in the middle of my bedroom floor, I wouldn't have fooled anyone. Every brochure was trying to stand out, defying the order I had tried to impose.

I had absolutely no idea how to pick a college.

What I really wanted to know was, where did God want me to go to college? I looked hard and just couldn't find "Evangeline, thou shalt go to Harvard" written anywhere.

Principles to Live By

I did learn 6 principles to guide us as we seek God's will in any situation. Whether you are trying to decide what college to go to, or what car to buy, spend some significant time working through "How to Know God's Will."

By working through the guidelines above, I was able to eliminate all but two types of college. I believed I should choose either an in-state public university or a Christian college.

Christian or Secular?

Again, I spent time with God, reading the Bible and in prayer. Then I considered my circumstances and asked advice from others, working through the 6 principles. I also committed all of it to writing, battling through pro/con lists.

I was attracted to the idea of living in a community at a Christian college where it would be easy to find people who could mentor me in my faith. Plus getting class credit for studying the Bible was a bonus. My youth group director encouraged everyone in our group to attend a Christian college.

On the other hand, most of my friends were going to non-Christian schools and I knew I could save money by going to one too. I was nervous that a secular school would hurt my faith but I also thought I might have the chance to represent Jesus on campus.

In the end, I choose to go to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a public university. And my 4 years at UNO deepened my relationship with God far more than I could have expected.

A Time of Spiritual Responsibility

What makes the difference between those who remain spiritually strong in college and those who do not? The most important factor is if the student decides to take an active role in their relationship with God.

"College is a critical moment in students' lives," says Mark Gauthier, Cru's U.S. Campus Director. "College can be either a spiritual greenhouse or a spiritual graveyard. It's a place where a student's faith blossoms or it dies."

Many students do walk away from church as they enter college, although even more that do not attend college do the same thing, according to Sam S. Rainer III, who heads Rainer Research and wrote Essential Church.

My Experience

Looking back at my time in college, I can see how a few important choices my freshman year made a huge difference in my spiritual life.

When I arrived at UNO, I immediately started looking for how to connect with Cru. My Dad had become a Christian through Cru in May of 1979 and I just assumed 2 decades later Cru staff members would be waiting to meet me on my campus.

Fortunately, they were. I signed up to get involved during the activities fair my first week at UNO. I went to the weekly meeting that week and joined a Bible study right away. Being in a close-knit Christian community helped me connect with other Christians who helped me work through the transition to college.

I also learned how to lead people to do hard, courageous things, like tell other students about Jesus or start a Bible study in the dorms. None of us had authority over other students; we learned to lead through prayer and encouragement.

College is a time to make important choices and choose what you will believe. By going to a school with a strong Christian group, it was easy for me to see how choosing to follow God makes a difference.

Making an Eternal Difference 

But the best part of going to UNO is that I was able tell other students how to know Jesus and mentor them as God changed their lives. According to UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, 80% of all college students are interested in spirituality, 3 out of 4 believe in God and 74% discuss religion and spirituality with their friends.

During my senior year of college I would literally go up to students hanging out in the student center and ask them if they wanted to learn how to know God personally.  Most of them said yes!

As a nervous freshman the first week of school, I would have never guessed it, but no one is more effective at reaching college students than students just like me.

Tip #1: Check to see if there is a Christian group on the colleges you are looking at.

What I didn't realize is that Cru had only recently arrived at UNO. Todd and Angela Johnson, staff members, were doing the hard work of starting the first Christian group on campus.

Unfortunately, the reality is that there are many campuses in the United States that do not have a Christian community. On those campuses, you will need to take an even greater responsibility for finding Christians to connect with that will support you.  For example, join a local church and get involved beyond Sunday services.

You can find out if your college (or potential college) has a Cru ministry by checking the Campus Locator.

Tip #2: Get Involved in a Christian Group Immediately.

College is such a different schedule than high school. You will probably only be in class 12-18 hours a week. The rest of the time is yours to use - or waste.

It is easy to think you will be able to add activities after the first few weeks of school. But the reality is, your time will get taken up very quickly.

You will need to study more than ever, there are lots of social options and it is easy for the pattern you set up at first to stick all year long.

Plus, the first few weeks on campus are unique. Everyone is looking for new friends, new Bible studies start and it is easy to join groups.

Set yourself up for spiritual success all year by taking those first few weeks to find a group you can invest and grow in.

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