Hillsdale College's Dan Bisher did what any campus leader would do, as he flipped through Money magazine's annual issue rating colleges.
First, he found Hillsdale in the Top 100 chart, at No. 31, and at No. 5 in the crucial "best buys" in the Midwest list. Then he looked for the competition. He was surprised when he couldn't find Calvin College, another of Michigan's top liberal arts colleges.
"I thought, `That's strange,'" said Bisher, Hillsdale's media-relations specialist. "Calvin's always up there in these lists."
Calvin has fared well in lists from U.S. News & World Report, National Review, the New York Times, Barron's and others. These guides consider familiar criteria, such as the quality of the faculty, library resources, entrance exam scores and the number of alumni who earn graduate degrees.
But this year, Money's 96-page guide considered another factor -- religion. Thus, 150 schools were eliminated because they were too religious. Among those dropped were nationally-known colleges such as St. Olaf, Centre and St. Mary's (Ind.), as well as Calvin, Wheaton, Gordon, Asbury, Taylor and 85 others in the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities. (In candor, another was Milligan College, where I teach.)
Calvin spokesman Michael VanDenend stressed that, while linked with one denomination, the college draws students from many religious backgrounds, including some "searching for a spiritual base. ... Officials at Money seem to draw arbitrary lines between `the secular' and `the religious.' We'd like them to tell us what a completely secular education might look like."
Part of the problem is that the Money guide includes many schools with religious roots and words such as Trinity, Loyola, Notre Dame, Methodist, Marymount and Christian appear in the list. Thus, many want to know what makes some schools "too" religious.
Money used a consistent standard, said associate editor Jillian Kasky. After studying 1,200 catalogs and 150,000 other college statistics, editors focused on two issues -- mandatory chapel services or requirements that students take courses based on one approach to faith. Schools with neutral "religious studies" requirements or secular courses on the Bible stayed in the list.
Last year, she explained, some parents wrote to complain that their child applied to a college highly ranked by Money and then discovered, before enrollment, that it was a Christian school. The child went elsewhere.
"These parents said that they felt misled," said Kasky. "We decided that some readers might get confused and think that Money was endorsing specific religious schools or a specific faith." The end result is a policy that favors schools that take one specific approach to religion -- a secular approach -- while shunning those that defend other specific faith commitments.
"It's amazing that (Money) would eliminate so many excellent schools solely on the basis of their religious viewpoints," said Bisher of Hillsdale, a college known for its conservatism. However, its core curriculum is secular, so it made Money's list. "This just sounds like more political correctness to me," he said.
Kasky has heard this refrain. So far, she is convinced Money has received a call from "one or more people at every one of those (CCCU) schools."
It's not surprising that people are upset, said coalition President Robert Andringa. Polls consistently show that 50 percent or more of Americans consider themselves active Christians and a high percentage of those are evangelical Protestants. In the past decade or so, enrollment at coalition schools grew 35 percent, compared with a 13 percent rate at secular schools.
"From their perspective, the people at Money are trying to be objective," he said. "We don't mind if Money or anybody else is honest and tells people what we stand for. In fact, we think Money should give parents and students more information and then let them make up their own minds. One reader may say, `Yes, that's exactly what they're looking for,' while another may decide that they don't want our kind of Christian commitment and they'll go elsewhere. That's fine. We just don't want to be locked out of the process."