A Guide to Religiously-Affiliated Colleges
While many colleges have historical connections with specific religious groups, most of them are no longer affiliated with a specific religion and are secular today. Some colleges do continue to have official religious affiliations that are heavily incorporated into their cultures, but still accept applicants who do not identify with their affiliated faith and do not require their student bodies to observe their traditions. The University of Notre Dame is one example of this kind of school; the university is affiliated with the Congregation of Holy Cross, and 80 percent of the student body identifies as Catholic.
In contrast, some colleges are specifically geared towards members of particular religious groups and have stricter rules and practices, such as Brigham Young University (BYU), which is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints (LDS). At BYU, students are required to follow an honor code that requires that they exhibit behavior and follow rules that are in accordance with LDS. However, as we discuss in this guide to the demographics section of the Common App, even many of these colleges, including BYU, accept members of other faiths.
Are you considering attending a religiously-affiliated college or university? In this post, we will discuss religious schools that offer a range of degree programs (as opposed to religious vocational schools, such as seminaries or yeshivas, which we will not discuss here).
What is different about a religious college as opposed to a secular one?
At religious colleges, faith often plays a large role in many aspects of campus life, including curriculum, housing, décor, the availability of religious services on campus, and other factors. Religious precepts might also influence which courses are taught and the manner in which the instructors teach them. For example, at BYU students must take fourteen semester hours of religious courses, regardless of their religion, in order to graduate.
However, most religious colleges still offer full academic programs that encompass many other programs of study. For instance, Pepperdine University, which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ, offers eight undergraduate divisions: Business, Communication, Fine Arts, Humanities and Teacher Education, International Studies and Languages, Natural Science, Social Science, and Religion.
Many faith-based student activities are also available, along with secular activities, such as sports teams. Some religious schools like BYU have dress codes, along with more restrictions and policies on behavior than non-religious schools, such as a prohibition on alcohol, tobacco, and all types of drugs. There may also be restrictions on interactions with members of the opposite sex, including single-sex dormitories and curfews.
Some religious colleges encourage or even require students to participate in religious services or activities such as Bible study. For instance, Baylor University, a Baptist institution, requires students to attend worship service every Monday and Wednesday. However, policies concerning all aspects of religious life vary considerably according to the church and degree of closeness with which they are affiliated.
Choosing to attend a religious college
If you are an active and dedicated member of your faith community and have a substantial number of religious activities on your resume, such as leading youth group at your church or volunteering with a faith-based group, a religious college may be a good fit for you. It also might be a good environment if you are thinking about becoming a religious professional someday, such as a clergy member, even if you choose to study another discipline as an undergraduate.
Some religious colleges have top academic programs that might interest you even if you are not a member of their affiliated faith. Keep in mind that if you choose to attend, you need to be comfortable with that faith and commit to following the rules governing the student body at the school.
However, if you strongly disagree with a school’s perspective or any of its policies and are unsure whether or not you can commit to following the rules, a religious college probably isn’t a good fit for you.
Applying to a religious college
Applications to religious colleges are similar in many aspects to those of secular colleges. Generally, you will need to submit academic transcripts, standardized test scores, recommendations, and so on, depending on the specific school’s requirements. Like other colleges, religious schools will often ask you to describe your extracurricular activities, in in these cases, it is a good idea to emphasize religious activities.
However, some elements of applications, such as specific essay questions, may require you to engage with your faith and/or the faith of the school. For example, in this year’s application, Notre Dame asks applicants to answer the following prompt:
Notre Dame is an adventure that will develop more than just your intellect. Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, believed that to provide a true education “the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart.” What excites you about attending Notre Dame?
Another example is BYU, where LDS students and faculty must submit an affidavit from their church leaders stating that they are active participants in the LDS church. Students and faculty members who are not LDS must submit endorsements from leaders of their religion. In all cases, the statements must be resubmitted annually. Other schools may give you the option of providing recommendations from religious leaders or other information about your religious background. Some colleges may also require you to sign an honor code, behavioral code, or statement of faith as part of your application.
Ultimately, religious colleges may be a good fit for some students and provide a unique environment in which you can grow and learn. However, they are not for everyone. Be sure you understand all the requirements of the institution you are considering attending, research it heavily, and visit if possible. It is also a good idea to talk to faculty, students, and alumnae about their experiences before you apply. You might also want to discuss your decision with a leader in your religious community to get an additional perspective.
For more information on college fit or choosing a college, check out these CollegeVine posts:
Having trouble narrowing down your college list? Unsure about the shape of your application? Learn about our College Application Guidance Program. Here, you’ll be paired with a personal admissions specialist who can provide step-by-step guidance through the entire application process, from college list to college acceptance.
Want more college admissions tips?
We'll send you information to help you throughout the college admissions process.