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Faith-friendly "great books" colleges

A pure classical liberal arts education with no strings attached
University Business, December 2016

Higher education historians often trace the modern growth and democratization of American higher learning to federal student financial aid – providing a system of higher education financing that has opened the doors of college and university campuses to students and families who would otherwise be unable to afford the spiraling costs of college tuition.   

This growth in government-sponsored student financial aid has also subsidized the sustainable growth and development of public, private non-profit, and more recently, for-profit institutions of higher learning.

However, over the past several decades, a fundamentally different breed of American institutions of higher learning have chosen a path less taken by making an intentional decision not to accept any form of federal student financial aid. These colleges find a steady stream of prospective students coming out of families that have already begun to appreciate the freedoms of various forms of private education, which, taking no federal funds, are free from the entanglements of federal government bureaucracy. These "great books"-oriented, faith-friendly colleges, provide a pure classical liberal arts education—with no strings attached.      

Following the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court (Grove City College v. Bell) and ensuing federal legislation, Grove City College withdrew from the Federal Pell Grant Program in 1988 and from the Stafford Loan Program in 1996—seeking to avoid the entanglements of an increasingly officious federal bureaucracy.  

Grove City College students are exposed to a liberal arts education with rigorous core coursework in the humanities, along with general education requirements in classical subject areas such as foreign language, laboratory sciences, religion, social sciences, and writing. Through the humanities core, students discuss great thinkers, debate great ideas, and read great books. These courses form an ethical framework and context for applying knowledge and skills in further pursuit of graduate education and gainful employment.

In 1844, Hillsdale College was founded as Michigan Central College, moved to Hillsdale, Michigan and reopened as Hillsdale College in 1855. Following the Grove City College v. Bell decision, Hillsdale College withdrew from federal funding in 1984. As a result, all student financial aid packages are privately funded – i.e. scholarships, educational grants, or loans.

Priding itself on a classical liberal arts education, Hillsdale College’s curriculum brings together both Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian traditions. The core curriculum of study focuses on reading great books and wrestling with timeless ideas—such as the Bible and U.S. Constitution, and those teachings written by Aristotle, Dickens, Hemmingway, Plato, Shakespeare, and Twain. Uniquely, Hillsdale College also oversees an independent, classical K12 day school, Hillsdale Academy.

Located in bucolic Moscow, Idaho, New Saint Andrews College was established in 1994 as a classical Christian college, offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs. New Saint Andrews College stays decidedly free from secular agendas by not accepting any federal student financial aid. That said, NSA students can apply for institutional scholarships and grants, or qualify for other private scholarships. Uniquely, New Saint Andrews College can claim a best-value proposition by keeping its tuition 63 percent lower than the average private college and importantly, students can lock in their tuition rate for four consecutive years.    

New Saint Andrews College takes justifiable pride in its “free” liberal arts curriculum, which grows out of classical roots and Christian traditions. The centerpiece of the curriculum is a unified, coherent, and vertically integrated B.A. in Liberal Arts and Culture, which requires students to study classical languages, rhetoric, literature, music, philosophy, and theology. It is in this curriculum that students read and discuss the great books, which is at the heart of the New Saint Andrews education – great books like those written by Augustine, Calvin, Descartes, Dostoevsky, Euripides, Faulkner, Montaigne, and Nietzsche.

New Saint Andrews College students are prepared for success following their undergraduate education based on the development of a strong foundation of skills, which President Benjamin Merkle nicely sums up this way:

“Students read and write at a high rate of speed. The pedagogy is aimed at instilling in graduates the difficult-to-find soft skills of leadership. These are the skills that rise to leadership across all vocations, rather than serve the technical skills of one specific vocation. The focus is on instilling in graduates critical and creative thinking, and the ability to express that thought, clearly and coherently, in writing and in speech.”

New Saint Andrews College graduates go on to attend graduate school (approximately 1 in 3) at prominent institutions like Duke, Notre Dame, Oxford, Princeton, Vanderbilt, and the Wharton School, and enter lifelong careers in business, writing, film, economics, education, law, technology, and ministry.

Distinctively, New Saint Andrews College has developed an Index for measuring the teaching and learning outcomes of pure classical Christian great books colleges – institutions with special educational missions that inspire students to read great books, learn lifelong lessons of ethics and integrity, and write powerful theses on the road to learning to lead. By way of example, here are several illustrative rubrics, which evaluate the institutional effectiveness of New Saint Andrews College and similarly purposed pure classical Christian great books college:

  • What percent of total classes were taught by teaching assistants or adjunct faculty?
  • How often each week do students meet with faculty in groups of ten students or less?
  • How many times, over the course of a typical year, do students personally defend an idea or a position to a faculty member?
  • How many times are students required to speak to an audience of more than forty people?
  • How many “great books” do students read during their undergraduate learning experience?
  • Do students write and defend an undergraduate thesis?
  • How many concerts, plays, or other public performances do students participate in?
  • After graduation from college are students gainfully employed in their chosen career fields or continue on to graduate school?

What these great books colleges have in common is that they share the celebration of classical liberal arts education without dependence on federal student financial aid and the strictures of the regulatory environment that can often dilute a truly pure liberal arts learning environment. Graduates are prepared for future success through reading and discussing the great books of our time at institutions producing quality education and economic value without dependence on or entanglements with an increasingly officious federal bureaucracy. 

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost's Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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