Higher Education

Private colleges make religious philosophies clear

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Calvin College, with almost 4,000 students, is one of the nation's largest Christian colleges. Photo via fb.com

LANSING — Some of Michigan’s private colleges are pushing for more racial and ethnic diversity, but are not necessarily actively seeking more religious diversity.

Colleges such as Hope, Calvin, University of Detroit Mercy, Albion, Cornerstone and Concordia that are affiliated with denominations of Christianity are reaching out to minorities in recruitment. Yet, in some cases, religious diversity is not a goal.

“We do promote racial and ethnic diversity,” said Barry Bandstra, a professor of religion at Hope College in Holland. “And we are naturally somewhat diverse religiously, though not as much as some students and faculty would like.”

Hope requires all students to complete two religion courses before graduation. However, of the 21 religion courses offered, only three have a focus other than Christianity.

“Not all our students are Christian, though faculty needs to be,” said Bandstra.

Hope professor of religion Steve Bouma-Prediger said, “The majority of our students are Christians of one sort or another, with many nondenominational Protestants, many traditional Protestants, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and many Roman Catholics.”

Bandstra said Hope attracts students through its strong programs in the sciences and arts, not necessarily because it’s a faith-based college.

“Hope self-identifies as a Christian college, though there is no formal pledge students or faculty must sign, so it’s different from places like Wheaton College in Illinois,” Bandstra said.

Wheaton requires an annual reaffirmed doctrinal statement by its board of trustees, faculty and staff that ensures a biblical perspective in academics.

“I think it is safe to say that religion plays a large role in the life of Hope College, though students are free to become involved or not,” Bouma-Prediger said.

The philosophy is much the same at Calvin College in Grand Rapids.

“Diversity is an ideal that Calvin holds dear, and we are constantly seeking to increase not only the number of minority and international students on campus but also to uphold diversity in the world as an accurate reflection of the heterogeneous church universal,” said Russ Bloem, vice president of enrollment management.

There is no mandate to increase religious diversity at Calvin, Bloem said. However, it does ask applicants to list church and religious affiliation.

Bloem said 0.1 percent of Calvin’s students say they follow a religion other than a Christian denomination and 3.8 percent don’t disclose their religion.

“We ask this because there is a denominational grant for students coming from a specific denomination, as Calvin College is officially affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church,” he said.

Bloem said this year’s essay question on Calvin’s application asks how prospective students expect to contribute to a Christian learning environment.

“Other than making very clear that Calvin’s campus is distinctively Christian, it does not assume or require the essayist to be Christian,” Bloem said. “We have commitments as faculty and staff to be intentional about education on issues of diversity.”

Hope offers scholarships to minority students, including the Bryne, Carpenter Family, and Jacob E. and Leona M. Nyenhuis diversity scholarships.

Calvin has the Entrada Scholars Program, intended for racial minorities including African-American, Native American, Latino and Asian-American students. Entrada scholars, who are juniors and seniors in high school, are assigned an academic coach who attends a three- or four-credit Calvin course with them and leads a study period following the class. After completion of the course, Entrada participants earn a $4,000 scholarship that’s renewable for up to four years and can reach $16,000.

Calvin also grants Mosaic Awards, a scholarship designed for minority or majority students from a culturally diverse background and with a grade point average of 2.5 or better. The Mosaic Award can reach $30,000, granting $6,000 per year up to five years.

“Calvin provides opportunities for students to list their racial, ethnic, national and linguistic diversity on his or her application,” Bloem said. “That information is not mandatory, but if applicants wish to share, we do like to have this full picture on their profiles.”

Bloem said the proportion of Calvin’s minority undergraduates increased from 6.3 percent in 2008 to 12.1 percent in 2012.

Department of Civil Rights information officer Jacki Miller said her agency has had no complaints during the past decade about private colleges’ failure to accept students due to religion.

If a college receives a portion of its funding from the federal government, it is subject to federal laws against discrimination, including in admissions, Miller said.

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