My Principia College friends on Facebook have been quite proud lately of the fact that their (and my) alma mater ranked very high on a recent ranking of United States colleges in Money magazine. I’m not aware that Money magazine has ever published a ranking of colleges before, so I’ll give them a pass on their naïveté in ranking Principia College as the number one out of a list of 25 best colleges an “average B student” can actually get into.1 This listing is a subset of a greater survey of U.S. colleges by Money magazine in which Principia College ranked 32nd on a list of 665 colleges.2 An admirably high ranking, if this was a list that really mattered. I’m not sure how Principia ranks higher than schools like Middlebury or University of Washington, but who am I to judge? Anyone who is in the know on United States college rankings will really only pay attention to the one that matters: US News and World Report. For their 2014 rankings, Principia College ranks #107 (tied with a couple of others) out of around 250 ranked liberal arts colleges.3 Not bad, actually, but not as good as they got on Money’s list. Money’s overall list (the 665 college list) is a decent effort and they used clearly established criteria to assess who would make the list and where they would rank. Over time, this may become a more prestigious listing. For now, I’ll call it a nice effort. My issue is with the ranking of Principia College as the #1 college an “average B student” can get into. This, my friends, is misleading to those who know little about Principia College, which would be probably 99.999% of the readers of that article. There are a few caveats about Principia College that I believe folks should be well aware of.
Warning: ‘radical reliance’ required
As an early 1990s graduate of Principia College, having attended there for my entire four years of undergraduate study, I know a lot about it–well, to be honest, I know more, in some aspects, of how it was. Some things have changed in 20 years, some things have not. What has not changed, and what anyone reading this ranking must be fully aware of is that Principia College only admits students who are practicing Christian Scientists. What do they mean by this? Well, let me tell you. You must fully and completely rely on Christian Science treatment for all of your health care needs–this is commonly known as ‘radical reliance‘. You are not permitted to take any medication whatsoever; not even antacid tablets, and definitely not aspirin for headaches. No, you must pray about it. That’s all you’re allowed to do. There is an infirmary of sorts called Cox Cottage, which is staffed by Christian Science nurses, but these ‘nurses’ provide no medical treatment at all. They do make a mean milkshake though. The most they will do for you is hand you a Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures and maybe some Christian Science lectures on CD to listen to. As you’re writhing in pain, that’s what you get. Want medication? You’ll be asked to leave. Yes, if you have to undergo medical treatment, you have to at least temporarily withdraw from Principia College. While it won’t go on your record as a suspension, if you’re gone long enough, you have to re-apply. Also, it will needlessly lengthen the time it takes to obtain a degree and either begin a career or start post-graduate study. There’s also community peer pressure to adhere strictly to Christian Science for healing, in addition to the institutional pressure, and that peer pressure is not to be underestimated.
You could literally be taking your life into your hands by going to Principia College. In fact, some have died doing just that due to a disease that is easily preventable by vaccination: measles. Outbreaks happened in 1978, 1980, 1985, 1989, and again in 1994.4 In the 1985 outbreak, three people died due to measles-related complications. Students were given the option to get vaccinated and therefore not be quarantined, but many elected not to. My own experience in Christian Science and Principia culture tells me that many likely bowed to peer pressure to refuse vaccinations. The peer pressure within Christian Science culture is extrenely strong, and overwhelming. Always remember, people die when they go the Christian Science route. Measles is a routinely preventable disease. To their credit, when you click through to the entry on Principia College, Money does mention that Principia only admits those who are Christian Scientists, but I think that caveat should be more prominently featured if they’re going to rank Principia so highly.
Advisory: Moral Conduct Code ahead
It’s also worth noting for the “average B student” that Principia College requires adherence to a rather strict moral code of conduct (by today’s standards). In my years there, that included some restrictions on having guests of the opposite gender in your room. For instance, there was once a policy called the ‘Open Door Policy’ which required that if two individuals of the opposite gender were in the same room, the door had to be open by a specified number of inches. I don’t recall the exact distance the door had to be open, but it was approximately the width of an average shoe. This policy was the administration’s way of trying to ensure that no immoral physical activity was occurring behind closed doors, but we had a work-around for that: we’d prop the door open with a shoe. The shoe was a universal signal that meant “stay out, I want privacy with my (girlfriend/boyfriend)”. We all called it the ‘Shoe In The Door’ policy. It was abolished I recall, around 1989–my sophomore year. ‘House hours’ remained, which prevented members of the opposite gender from visiting each other’s rooms after certain hours, and I believe that there is still some sort of ‘house hours’ to this day. In all honesty, I didn’t mind ‘house hours’, especially one semester when I had a roommate who spend copious amounts of time with his girlfriend in our room. It at least afforded me a guaranteed night of uninterrupted sleep.
Today, however, there still remain a few moral codes of conduct that the “average B student” would find restrictive: no sexual relations between unmarried couples (heterosexual or homosexual), no use of alcohol, no use of recreational drugs, and no use of medication.5 I understand that the previous Code of Conduct included specific prohibitions against any sort of homosexual behaviour whether it was sexual in nature or not. The document I have had access to merely references sexual activity outside of marriage. There has been considerable controversy surrounding previous more explicit prohibitions not only against homosexual sexual activity, but homosexual relationships as well. Even speaking out against the policy was grounds for discipline. I’m not sure where things stand now. Some of the rules regarding gender interactions have relaxed somewhat, others haven’t. The “average B student” and their libido may have some issues with the Community Commitment.
A word about academic matters
I received a good education at Principia College. Uniquely, being a small school, students have unprecedented access to professors at Principia that they wouldn’t otherwise get at a larger college, and certainly not at a large university when at the undergraduate level. My professors were all well-qualified, dedicated, good mentors, and they gave me skills I use well to this day. During my four years there, I established close relationships with many of my professors, and they were mentors and in some cases friends to me. Ironically, this blog is somewhat a product of my education at Principia. I learned how to write effectively while I was there, and I can cite one of my English professors, who was an extremely tough grader for truly teaching me how to write. He has gone on now to be an editor at The Washington Post. My Principia education also taught me to think critically and holistically, a skill that has served me well as I write about Christian Science and my experiences with it, in addition to many other aspects of my life.
Twenty years ago, when I was a student at Principia College, there was still a reasonably decent pool of talented Christian Scientist academics to fill the faculty ranks there. However, as with the general decline in the Christian Science movement, so has gone the pool of talent for Principia College to draw on for its faculty. You see, all faculty as well as staff (except for cafeteria and facilities labourers) at Principia College must be actively practicing Christian Scientists. The fact is, there are not very many qualified Christian Scientists out there, period. Add in to the mix the fact that Principia College does not offer tenure to any faculty, and all faculty and staff are, in fact, on one-year contracts (forget about job security), and the pool of qualified and willing talent gets very, very small. If you’re a qualified academic, you would have to be extremely dedicated to Principia (and a bit crazy, in my opinion) to leave a good job either in the private sector or at another college or university (perhaps that offers tenure, or more than a one-year contract) to go to work at Principia.
More recent Principia College graduates whom I have become acquainted with, have expressed their opinions that many current faculty members are not as well qualified academically as they felt they should be. As I looked through the 2012 – 2013 Principia College Catalog, I noted a few things: about two thirds of the faculty are new since I was a student just 20 years ago, almost all are Principia graduates themselves, and most tellingly, many do not have terminal (PhD) degrees; although they are strongly encouraged to get one. A fellow member of one of the ex-Christian Scientist Facebook groups I’m in has recently noted that Principia (College and the School) have a number of faculty positions open, some having been open for quite some time now. Also, some things like the Writing Center that existed when I was a student to help students with their writing have been eliminated, the task for writing guidance being placed on increasingly overworked regular faculty. For now, Principia College (and the school) is clinging to a reasonable level of academic excellence, but I don’t think they can hold on for much longer unless some fundamental policies change.
Another way to measure academic excellence is how selective a college is in its admissions. Other than the requirement for a student to be a practicing Christian Scientist, the only other qualification appears to be that you be human and have a pulse (even though a pulse is a mortal illusion). The acceptance rate is approximately 87% (see either the Money or U.S. News and World Report rankings). Technically, it’s selective, but in practice it’s not very selective. My high school grades were painfully average (almost at the low end of average), and I got in without a problem. Another concern I have for Principia’s future, and this parallels the issue with finding talented faculty, is that the pool of potential Christian Scientist students is shrinking rapidly as well. Enrollment has decreased since my days, not increased. In my class year (1993), we had 203 students. In the latest year I have seen data for, 2005, that number decreased to 110–nearly a 50% drop! The high-water mark was reached in 1974 with 307 students.6
Overall while yes, Principia College is a decent school that indeed an “average B student” can get into, that claim comes with a few big caveats, and I think it’s highly misleading for Principia College to be as prominently ranked as it is by Money magazine without a huge asterisk next to that rating. Not everyone can get in–it is only open to members of a very obscure religion that numbers perhaps 60,000 – 100,000 adherents* worldwide. It draws from a rapidly shrinking pool of faculty and support staff talent, and a disappearing pool of potential students. It never drew from a large pool, so the number of living alumni is small as well, and not all are active supporters of Principia. Its most active alumni supporters are the older classes, who were larger in numbers. This does not bode well for Principia’s sustainability into the future, and therefore its continuing credibility as an educational institution. Without talented faculty, a vibrant student body, and a supportive corps of alumni, a college dies. As one reads Money’s list, and thinks about the #1 “College You Can Actually Get Into”, my advice is buyer beware. The biggest caveat with Principia can be, and has been, a killer.
My thanks to my friend and fellow ex-Christian Scientist blogger at Kindism for being the source of the link to the Principia Course Catalog used for information in this post. Please visit their blog, and take a look at their own post regarding Principia’s ranking.
*This is my educated guess as to the number of actively practicing Christian Scientists worldwide. I define that as one who is at least an active member of The Mother Church in good standing. The Mother Church does not publish the numbers of members so it’s impossible to know how many there actually are. My estimate is based on the last known official count of Mother Church members in the United States, from the 1926 United States Census of Religious Bodies, which counted about 200,000 members in the United States. Since then, no count has been released as far as I know, and the numbers of branch churches and Christian Science practitioners has been declining since hitting its peak in the 1940s. I also look at circulation figures for Church periodicals such as the Christian Science Sentinel, which are released annually as per United States Postal Service regulations for bulk mailing permits, and they show a steady decline since the most recent high-water mark in 1999 (53,290) to the most recent figure I’ve seen, which is for 2009: 24,130. However, it’s worth noting that these circulation figures could be misleading and the decline in readership might be overstated due to the fact that the Christian Science Publishing Society has been moving its periodicals to an increasingly digital platform.
1 “The 25 Best Colleges You Can Actually Get Into.” Money. Time, Inc. n.d. Web. 22 August 2014.
2 “Money’s Best Colleges.” Money. Time Inc. n.d. Web. 22 August 2014.
3 “National Liberal Arts College Rankings.” U.S. News and World Report. n.d. Web. 22 August 2014.
4 “Outbreak of Measles Among Christian Science Students–Missouri and Illinois, 1994.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 01 July 1994. Web. 22 August 2014.
5 “Principia Community Commitment.” Principia College Catalog 2012 – 2013. Elsah, Illinois: Principia College. 2012. 8 – 9. Print.
6 “‘The Best College You Can Actually Get Into’ is NOT Principia.” Kindism. 14 August 2014. Web. 23 August 2014.