Faith-based schools growing as students seek to blend academics, spirit

Sunday, September 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla.-The 17-year-old standing under the "Welcome New Students" sign in a stiff Oral Roberts University ball cap is a college freshman far from home.

Within the week, he'll swear off alcohol, premarital sex and cigarettes to stay here.

A co-ed from Arkansas explains that she's at ORU to "hook up with God's people." Another, an ex-gang member in a leopard-print dress, scans the newcomers to the charismatic Christian campus and wonders if any of them come from backgrounds like hers.

"I need to get strong in the word of God to compete with the worldly things," says Tanya Magdadaro, a 19-year-old from suburban Houston.

A desire for higher education with a higher calling is filling faith-based campuses across the nation.

The 12 percent enrollment growth seen by schools with religious affiliations throughout the 1990s was about three times that of all institutions, figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show. And many are setting records this year.

Space-strapped Azusa Pacific University in California is having to hold chapel services in a dormitory and lecture hall. A record 1,800 applications jammed the mailbox at Lipscomb University, a Church of Christ-affiliated school in Nashville. The women's housing at ORU is filled to capacity.

"I was just looking for a college that was really on fire for God," says Lealinda Camara, an ORU freshman from Harrison, Ark. "A secular college was totally out of the question."

Robert Thompson, 17, learned about ORU at the church his family attends in Charlotte, N.C. He was sold on it after visiting the campus dominated by gold-painted buildings and a space-age prayer tower.

"This university was the only university I saw that was interested in graduating someone who was complete," he says.

He is required to sign a code of honor upholding Christian values. He must wear a shirt and tie to class, meet curfews and attend twice a week chapel services. Courses are taught with a "reference to Scriptural truths."

Many Christian colleges are seizing on a growing charismatic movement. They recruit through Christian college fairs, home school outreach programs and worship services in large congregations.

But they're finding that students already solid in their faith are seeking them.

"They have been standing firm in their public high schools regularly and they want to be a part of an environment where they can be true to what they are and what they believe," said Deana Porterfield, dean of admissions at Azusa Pacific, which expects to surpass last year's record enrollment this fall.

Schools are stressing their religious roots on Web sites and in promotional material.

Fordham University uses the tag, "New York City's Jesuit University," in a marketing plan that has grown more aggressive and vibrant. It promotes the university's selling points _ Jesuit tradition combined with the excitement of New York City, says John W. Buckley, dean of admissions.

"I think we have probably done a better job of explaining a little more about what that means," he says.

Catholic institutions are expecting to see additional enrollment gains with between 700,000 and 1 million Hispanic students, many of them from Roman Catholic families, projected to reach college admissions offices in the next decade.

New course offerings and distance learning programs have helped boost enrollment at many faith-based schools. But it's an underlying desire for education with "something more" that many university officials believe is fueling the growth.

"I think we have a lot of students looking for answers outside of themselves, outside of today's popular culture," says Timothy McDonough, spokesman for the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization for 1,800 colleges and universities nationwide.

At ORU, students often answer the question, "What's your major?" with thoughts about what they believe God wants for them.

Televangelist Oral Roberts founded this school on the words he said God spoke to him at age 17 when he was sick with tuberculosis: "You are to build me a university and build it on my authority and the Holy Spirit."

ORU opened in 1965 and grew to about 4,600 students by 1986, but the school was hurt by scandals that rocked other ministries in the late 1980s.

When Richard Roberts succeeded his father as president in 1993, enrollment had declined and ORU was $52 million in debt. A record 5,200 students enrolled last fall.

"It's evident not only that this is what people are wanting more and more," Richard Roberts says, "but when the students come they're enriched, they are bettered and they leave this place more able to do what they feel led to do."

Roberts, who has the same swept-back hair style and television presence as his father but admits breaking the honor code as an ORU student, relaxed some of his father's rules: Students can dress down after 4 p.m. And women can wear slacks to class in the cold winter months.

But whether schools that stress faith stay popular or not, Roberts says ORU is unwavering in its mission. At ORU's dedication, the Rev. Billy Graham pronounced a curse upon it if it ever moved away from putting God first.

"I think what Billy was saying was if ORU ever leaves its moorings ... then a curse will be upon us in the sense we'll no longer have what we once had," Roberts says.

"We'll become something different. And I don't ever want to do that."