Wheaton College in Illinois is the single best place to go to college in America. Or Thomas Aquinas College in California. Or the utterly secular Princeton University in New Jersey. In terms of final scores in First Things ’ extensive new college survey, there’s not much difference among the top three schools in the nation.

Of course, in every other sense, these are schools with enormous differences. But that’s the interesting part of the balancing act required when comparing America’s colleges. Princeton came in so high academically that all it needed were scores on the lower end of middling, in religious atmosphere and friendliness to religious belief, to achieve its final ranking. (Tellingly, it was one of the few premier universities to clear even those low bars.) The evangelical Wheaton and the Catholic Thomas Aquinas couldn’t reach Princeton’s level of pure academic possibilities, but Wheaton’s social and religious atmosphere, and Thomas Aquinas’ intellectual seriousness, pushed them, in the end, to the top. The choice for potential students, from there on out, involves only the question of what those students most want from their college education.

The work on this special college issue of First Things began after a conversation with a friend who, over lunch, mentioned that his son and daughter were growing ashamed of their faith. A devout Catholic who had homeschooled his children along the way, he sent them back east to a pair of distinguished universities, where . . . well, where the entirely predictable happened. Out of the hothouse and left to their own devices, they felt for the first time the constant acid drip of sneering and mockery that marks American academia today. First they tried to hide their faith, and then they quit the practice of that faith, and then, eventually, they dropped the faith. By the time they received their degrees, neither was a churchgoer and neither, really, was a believer.

And so that friend asked me a very pointed question: “Is there anywhere to go to college in the United States today where (1) you’ll get a socially useful diploma, (2) you’ll have the chance of getting an actual education, and (3) you won’t get your faith beaten out of you?”

The obvious answer is yes. Or no. Or maybe. The problem my friend faced is that his children weren’t really leaders. They weren’t self-starting, self-driving dynamos who thrive on adversity. They were just smart kids who wanted to get along. To fit in. To be normal , as normal exists at the famous old schools to which they went.

What’s the point of this special issue of First Things . The rough-and-tumble types will do well anywhere. In our Junior Fellows program at First Things , for recent college graduates, we’ve brought them in from the likes of Wabash and Harvard and Columbia, places where they triumphed the more they were (or believed they were) oppressed. But where do the ordinary kids go”the good, smart, ordinary kids, still feeling their way into life? How do they survive? How do they flourish?

And so, two years ago, First Things began collecting publicly available data on 2063 institutions of higher learning in the United States. Over the last year, we followed that up with polling of students and recent graduates on the religious, academic, and social atmosphere of their schools. And we followed that with queries among our academic friends and colleagues. (See page 45 for technical information about the scores.)

Even after all that work, however, we have only scratched the surface of the topic. Much in this special issue is still subjective, derived solely from impressions given us by the students, the chaplains, and the faculty. How are we to adjust the score of Yeshiva, for instance, given that Jewish schools often came in with obviously too-low results for religious atmosphere? (As one friend pointed out, these kids are so religious, they think of what they’re getting as a secular education.)

For that matter, how does one treat the fact that Valparaiso, a school that every report told us is in decline, nonetheless remains much better academically than Houston Baptist, a school bouncing up at an astonishing rate? Or the fact that Seton Hall, a college that has let uninspired hiring over the past twenty years eat up its Catholic identity, still has Catholic resources that dwarf those of such new and entirely Catholic colleges as Wyoming Catholic and even Ave Maria?

Or the fact that many of the places least friendly to religion are small liberal-arts colleges”and many of the places most friendly to religion are small liberal-arts colleges? Or the curious fact, revealed by our polling, that the more a school concentrates on a Great Books curriculum, the more its students use tobacco, and the more Catholic a school is, the more its students use tobacco”culminating in the little Catholic colleges with Great Books programs, where the whole student body seems to smoke like chimneys?

A teacher at Georgetown University once proclaimed, as the crowning glory of Catholic education, the fact that her students were less Catholic after finishing their Georgetown degrees than they were when they entered as freshman. Quite apart from the peculiar contradiction of Catholic educators praising themselves for decatholicizing their students, few of the parents would smilingly agree with the proposition. Few of the parents, that is, who struggled to pay for it all.

There’s been much talk recently, particularly among conservatives, about college in America as a bubble waiting to burst. As Megan McArdle points out in The Atlantic , government figures suggest that people with a bachelor’s degree earn, in their lifetimes, about $1.1 million more than those without. Which is a lot”except that, calculated in the usual financial terms of an investment, the present value of $1.1 million over a lifetime is around $250,000, and that’s awfully close to what a college education can cost these days. The calculation needs to be made more complicated with a number of factors, but many commentators are nearing the conclusion that America’s routine sending of its youth to college should come to an end.

First Things is not yet ready to give up on academia, that trillion-dollar temple near the heart of culture. But we are increasingly coming to see that college must have an identity. The old idea of the multiversity appears more undead than we had thought, and it needs a final stake through its heart. The drift at schools without an identity is now rapid and precise: They all end up in the same place, second- and third-tier would-be Harvards, locked into the same public bromides, the same educational malaise, and the same social messes as all the others.

At a Jesuit-established school like Boston College, a Methodist-founded school like the University of Southern California, or a land-grant school like Penn State”what, at the end of the day, is the difference in the education the student receives? Or the value of the degree? Or the way in which religion is treated, with varying levels of gentleness, as something one must outgrow to join the normality of the college-degreed middle class?

Such schools may well be doomed. There isn’t all that much point to them, particularly once the financial return is discounted. But the colleges with an identity and a purpose alive inside them”those are the ones to attend. The choices are almost endless. There are science schools and Great Books schools, art academies and yeshivas. There are even some where students can receive a socially useful diploma, have the chance of an education, and not have their faith beaten out of them.