Higher Learning

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SPIRITED PARTICIPATION: APUís mandatory morning chapel services are part revival, part pep rally

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In the 1990s, however, A.P.U. president Richard Felix envisioned the school as a flagship Christian university and launched its first formal fund-raising campaign. Under Felix, now retired, A.P.U. introduced an honors program and a science research institute, created academic scholarships to lure better students from both religious and secular high schools, quadrupled its graduate programs and nearly doubled undergraduate enrollment. Even as the school grew in size, the mean SAT score of freshmen began a steady climb, rising 72 points in the past five years, to 1,102--82 points above the national average and a sign that more serious scholars are filling the seats at chapel.

Among them are students like freshman Morgan Altizer, 18, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., who turned down UCLA's honors program to attend A.P.U. Altizer, a runner, says she reached her decision after she met each school's track coach. At UCLA, "they wanted to know, 'How fast can you run? How high can you jump?'" Altizer says. "Here, the coach wanted to know about my whole person, about my spirituality." The philosophy major admits she still grapples with her decision. "Sometimes I ask myself, 'Why am I at a Christian school? No one's gonna respect me [academically],'" Altizer says. "But I'm not here to get a job. I'm here to become a person."

For a Christian college, A.P.U.'S atmosphere is decidedly mellow. There is no dress code: women wear tank tops and low-rise pants, and men have earrings and ripped jeans. Male and female students can visit each other's dorm rooms until midnight on weekends or 10 p.m. during the week. A rarely enforced prohibition on dancing was dropped in the late 1990s. There is no faith pledge, although students must sign a document agreeing to certain "spiritual and social expectations"--no drug, alcohol or tobacco use on campus and no unmarried cohabitation or homosexual activity on or off campus. There is a mandatory 120 hours of community service.

Students, even the Muslims and Buddhists that administrators say are on campus, must attend chapel three mornings a week, but the service can feel as much like a pep rally as church. Stuffed onto risers and folding chairs in the event center, the young adults sing along, raise their arms and sway as student Christian rock and gospel groups perform. Leaning on a lectern in front of a towering video screen, campus pastor Chris Brown, in jeans, sneakers and a goatee, cuts from photos of A.P.U. students "who need our prayers" to a scene from the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty. In his sermon, Brown makes references to his winter-break road trip, Jell-O and The Simpsons' pious neighbor Ned Flanders.

The school is 74% white and overwhelmingly upper middle class and Californian. At nearly $20,000 for full-time tuition and fees, A.P.U. is cheaper than some private colleges but expensive compared with the state's high-quality public universities, whose tuition and fees for residents are under $6,000. While most white students say the instant they stepped on campus A.P.U. felt "like home," many minority students say they struggled to adapt. Joyce Tai, 26, an Asian-American master's candidate in college student affairs, was drawn by a unique administrative program but finds life in this Christian bubble startlingly different from her undergraduate experience at California State University, Fullerton. "I'm taking a diversity class. I'm looking around. Where is the diversity?"

At the same time, it's the sense of being in a kind of Christian haven, away from the world's traumas, that can make the campus seem especially welcoming for protective parents and religious students from large public high schools. A.P.U. professors seem to enjoy a closer bond with their students than those at many secular schools because of the 12-to-1 student-faculty ratio and the faith they have in common. At A.P.U., students talk about visiting their professors' homes and meeting their families. Biologist Milhon describes himself as "like a marriage counselor" for some of his students.

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