The Bible college movement comprises a relatively small and oft-misunderstood segment of the higher education marketplace.  Through this post—which will be a mix of fact and opinion—I hope to give you insights into this group of schools so that you can better consider whether one of them might meet your needs.

There are primarily two types of Christian colleges:  Christian liberal arts colleges and Bible colleges, with a small number of schools bringing both types of education together under one roof.

In North America, Bible colleges came onto the scene in the late 1800s and proliferated significantly in the middle of the 20th century.  For the most part, these schools are evangelical Protestant and have had a primary mission to educate students for careers in vocational ministry—leading churches, working in parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade or retreat centers, or serving as missionaries.  Other students choose to attend a Bible college simply to grow in their biblical and theological knowledge.

Over the last 30 years a number of the schools have broadened their academic offerings to include majors such as psychology, education, communication, business, history and philosophy.  This expansion has happened both in response to market pressures and a realization that anyone can serve God and mankind through a variety of occupations.

A key factor that distinguishes a Bible college’s business program, for instance, from one elsewhere is that the student will probably complete the equivalent of a major in biblical studies in addition to the courses required in business.  I sometimes tell students that if they choose a Bible college for one of these majors they consequently are deciding that what might be “free electives” at another institution will be consumed almost entirely with classes in subjects related to the Bible and ministry.  There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, so long as it fits well with your interests and goals.

There are reports that there may be as many as 2,500 postsecondary Bible schools in North America.  I might divide them into three broad groupings: Those that are unaccredited, those accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education and those with regional accreditation.

First, if this figure of 2,500 is at all accurate, then over 2,000 of these enterprises are completely unaccredited.  Many are small Bible institutes that may be very specialized in their focus (e.g., urban ministry) or tied to an individual local church.  Their course offerings seldom go beyond classes directly related to biblical study, theology and ministry.

Second, the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), a recognized “national accrediting association” by the U.S. Department of Education, is the chief accrediting body for Bible colleges.  The ABHE has awarded institutional accreditation to 100 schools “specializing in biblical ministry formation and professional leadership education.”

Finally, a number of Bible colleges hold dual accreditation.  They are regionally accredited in addition to their ABHE seal of approval.  ABHE accreditation alone is a measure of credibility and provides students with access to Title IV financial aid, but regional accreditation adds significant value in that it helps ensure the transferability of coursework and acceptability of degrees for graduate study.

There are a couple more groups of schools worth your attention.  First, there are colleges that have morphed into a hybrid of a Bible college and a liberal arts college, expanding their curricular requirements and offerings while still requiring the equivalent of a major in Bible for all students usually. My own school, Multnomah University, could fall into this category.

In addition, there are institutions that were born as Bible colleges but now would place themselves strictly as Christian liberal arts institutions.  In many cases, these schools continue to require a significant number of credits in biblical studies but not to the extent they once did.  Examples include New York’s Nyack College (one of the very first Bible colleges), Biola University in Southern California and Corban University in Oregon.

Beyond the opportunity to focus academically on the study of Scripture and be part of a faith-based community, Bible colleges generally provide a very economical higher education.  At a time when it’s not unusual to hear about private institutions charging tuition in excess of $30,000 a year while many public universities cost more than $10,000 a year, tuition at an “expensive” ABHE Bible college may be in the $20,000 range and some are even under ten grand.  A few are tuition-free.  The average total undergraduate cost—tuition, fees, room and board—for ABHE schools was just $13,921 in 2008-09, less than the $14,333 average for in-state students at public institutions and well below the $34,132 average seen at private colleges across the country.

I believe it’s common to classify institutions with an enrollment under 5,000 as “small colleges.”  By that measure, Bible colleges might be called miniscule (though I prefer “intimate” or “personal”).  ABHE schools have an average undergraduate enrollment of around 350.  Almost half would have a total enrollment of fewer than 200 while only a dozen or so institutions would be in the 1000+ range.  Some of the best known and most substantial Bible colleges are Moody Bible Institute (IL), Cairn University (PA), Multnomah University (OR), Columbia International University (SC), Tyndale University College (Ontario) and Lincoln Christian University (IL).

The small size of most ABHE-accredited institutions does not necessarily mean that they don’t have good academic quality or resources.  Because their curricular offerings tend to be more specialized and narrow, they do not need to have as broad a library collection or as wide a variety of professors.  There’s no need for the latest engineering journals, cutting edge health technology labs, or highly paid accounting faculty.  I suggest to students that while these colleges don’t offer everything, what they do, they generally do well.

In fact, it’s been my observation that courses at a Bible college can be much more demanding than those found at other institutions, depending on each individual student’s strengths and interests.  Many classes are heavily reading and writing oriented.  Furthermore, if you have not grown up in a religious environment, much of the content will be foreign to you, adding to the academic challenge.  A student with a good GPA at a good Bible college is most likely a good student capable of success in many fields of study and academic settings.

Bible colleges—like the broader Christian higher education community—are not for everyone.  However, for a select few, particularly those who are serious about their faith and may have some interest in a ministry-oriented career, this type of institution should be at the very top of the list.

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