Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Hidden Gems VI: Non-Coastal Northwest

The Non-coastal West covers a very large, sparsely-populated, territory and the non-coastal Northwest is more sparsely populated than the non-coastal Southwest.  It was difficult to divide these two sections. I eventually decided to include Utah in the Northwest, which is arguably part of the Southwest, because Texas dominates the Southwest and these posts are already too large.  The sparse population and lower average incomes of the Northwest leads to fewer colleges and universities–and, thus, correspondently fewer “hidden gems.” In this post, I cover the states of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Utah.

1. Idaho:  Idaho is an extremely rural state and low-population state. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it had just over 1.5 million people in 2010–or less than the Borough of Manhattan in NYC. It has over 89 million square miles of real estate, but only 19 persons per square mile! It is also one of the poorer states, though richer than some others because of the early history of mining. Still the median income for a family of 4 is only $43.5k per annum.  These demographics explain the sparsity of Idaho’s institutions of higher education.  The “usual suspects” include three (3) public research universities: The University of Idaho (Moscow), Idaho State University (Pocatello), which is attempting to open the first medical school in the state, and Boise State University (Boise), which is becoming well known in technology-related fields.  There is no private research university, but among the usual suspects one must count Brigham Young University-Idaho, which is its own institution and not a branch of Utah’s more famous BYU. Idaho has the nation’s 2nd largest Mormon/LDS population and BYU-Idaho is well-regarded academically even outside Latter-Day Saints’ circles.  Hidden gems:

College of Idaho (Caldwell):  Founded by Presbyterians in 1884, the College of Idaho opened it’s doors in 1891, and by either date it is the oldest private institution of higher education in the state.  With a small enrollment of just over 1,000 students, nearly 10% are international students and 11% are persons of color–which in an extremely “white” state like Idaho translates into more diversity than most of the student body has ever seen before arriving on campus.  C of I is known for its “Peak” curriculum in which students map out individual plans of study that allow for each student to graduate with a major and 3 minors in 4 years.  C of I’s alumni include 6 Rhodes Scholars, 3 Marshall scholars, 10 Truman and Goldwater scholars, 4 governors, a Pulitzer-prize winning historian, and an Academy Award-winning composer.  C of I leads all Idaho institutions of higher education in freshmen retention, graduation rates, and alumni giving.

Northwest Nazarene University (Nampa):  Organized as a Bible college in 1913, it became a liberal arts college in 1917 and by 1927 was the first accredited liberal arts college of the Church of the Nazarene.  Select masters’ degrees were added in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to the 1999 name change from Northwest Nazarene College to Northwest Nazarene University.  Regularly ranked as one of the best colleges or universities in the Northwest, NNU’s campus atmosphere is distinctively evangelical Christian and its approach to education is thoroughly rooted in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition of the Church of the Nazarene, although only about 45% of students claim “Nazarene” as their faith.  The campus is not interfaith welcoming and has strict moral codes for faculty and students.  But its graduates include one astronaut, the current administrator of U.S.AID’s Bureau of Global Health and several Nazarene theologians.

2. Montana:  Montana is an even larger rural state, with an even smaller population.  As of 2011, less than 1 million people live in MT. It has 145 million square miles of land and only 6.8 people per square mile! The median income is nearly identical with Idaho’s.  But the people of Montana have invested more in public higher education.  The University of Montana system has 4 campuses with a flagship research campus at Missoula and The Montana State University system also has 4 campuses with a flagship campus at Bozeman.  There are no private, comprehensive research universities. Hidden Gems:

Carroll College (Helena). Founded in 1909 by John Patrick Caroll, the 2nd Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Helena, MT. Originally named St. Charles College in honor of St. Charles Boromeo, it was renamed to honor its founder in 1932.  Founded as a single-sex men’s college for the purpose of training men for the priesthood and for lives of service in law, medicine, teaching, and engineering, it is now co-ed. The college observatory is the oldest astronomical observatory in the state of MT.  60% of students are Catholic and 2/3 come from the state of MT.  It is ranked well academically.  Known for its Environmental Studies major and for a civil engineering degree with an environmental focus, Caroll is also strong in philosophy, public policy, and the biological sciences.  The Honors Scholars Program is centered on the Great Books of the Western World, but also includes a senior thesis, a community service component, and a cultural component.

Rocky Mountain College (Billings).   RMC traces its history to 1878, but its contemporary form came from the 1947 merger of two smaller liberal arts colleges.  RMC is related to several mainline Protestant denominations including the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., and the United Church of Christ.  In 2011, RMC’s total enrollment was just over 1,000 students, including part-time commuters. RMC promotes the core values of academic excellence rooted in the liberal arts, transformational learning based in experiential learning and service learning programs, shared responsibility, and stewardship.  It houses an Institute of Peace Studies which gives an annual Jeanette Rankin Peace Award. (Jeanette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress in the U.S., elected from MT before women even had the right to vote nationwide.  She voted against U.S. entry into WWI, along with a large minority. She was later the ONLY member of Congress to vote against entry into World War II saying, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake. She was from that now-extinct species, “liberal Republican.”)  But RMC also has an Army ROTC program which shows an institutionally divided mind.  In addition to traditional majors, RMC also offers Equestrian Studies, Aeronautical Sciences, and Aviation Management.

3. North Dakota:  Another large, rural state with very few people–less than 700,000 total. The other demographics are very similar to what we’ve seen in this entire region.  North Dakota’s public universities and colleges are all organized together as the North Dakota State University system which includes 6 universities 1 4-yr. public liberal arts college, and 4 2-yr. community colleges. The public universities include 2 doctoral-granting, research universities: the flagship University of North Dakota, famed for its aerospace programs and which hosts the only medical school and the only law school in the state; and the North Dakota State University of Agricultural and Applied Sciences (more commonly known as North Dakota State University or NDSU). Hidden gem:

Jamestown College (Jamestown).  Founded by Presbyterians in 1883, six years before North Dakota statehood, and still related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.  It is a private, co-ed, comprehensive college of liberal arts and sciences with just over 1,000 students from 31 states and 13 countries. Student-teacher ratio is 13:1.  Listed by the Templeton Foundation as a “Character-Building” college.  Because of its “Journey to Success” program, Jamestown has a graduation rate of 99.5%, a job placement rate of 99% and a graduate school placement rate of 96%.  All activities, in and out of the classroom, are built around the “Journey to Success,” including self-assessment, personalized advising, mentoring, career counseling, a 4-year graduation guarantee, and a guaranteed internship.  Nearly 100% of students receive some form of financial aid, and usually this covers more than half of tuition, room & board costs.

4. South Dakota:  South Dakota has nearly identical square miles as North Dakota and is just as rural, but has a slightly larger population of less than 900,000 people. The median income is nearly identical as well. Despite this, SD has only 6 state universities and 3 tribal colleges. It has no private, doctoral-granting, research university.  Of the public universities, 2 are research universities, The University of South Dakota (Vermillion), which houses the state’s only accredited business, medical, and law schools, and South Dakota State University (Brookings). Hidden Gems:

Augustana College (Sioux Falls).  There are two liberal arts colleges by this name in the U.S., one in the Chicagoland area of IL and this one in Sioux Falls, SD. Both are co-ed, liberal arts colleges related to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  This Augustana College, nicknamed “Augie,” was founded in 1860. It is a top-ranked liberal arts college featured in Harvard Schmarvard and the Templeton Honor Roll of character-building colleges.  It’s 5 core values are: Christian identity, liberal arts, excellence, community, and service.  About 46% of students are Lutheran and another 20% are Catholic, with various other Christian denominations filling out the rest of student population. Few students on campus identify as “secular,” “agnostic,” “atheist,” or “other religious,” despite the college’s insistence that “all faith groups are welcome here.”  The honors program, Civitas, is focused around responsible citizenship based on the life and thought of the German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It has an excellent study abroad program with numerous options–including numerous financing options.  There is no Greek Life to divide students into cliques, but numerous campus organizations and service opportunities are available.

Dakota Wesleyan University (Mitchell).  Founded by Methodists in 1883, driven to build “a college of stone while living in houses of sod,” DWU is, despite a name dating from 1909, a 4 year liberal arts college rather than a university as defined in the 20th C.  It averages about 800 students and is well known for its programs in Native American culture and history.  DWU’s most famous alumnus is former U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD) who was the 1972 presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.  DWU’s library is named for George and Eleanor McGovern as is its 2006-founded McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service.  Divided into 4 colleges: College of Arts and Humanities, Donna Starr Christen College of Health Sciences, Fitness, and Science, College of Public Service and Leadership.  Every student organization and athletic sport must adopt at least one service project.

5. Wyoming:  Wyoming has the reputation of being the most politically conservative state in the union–more conservative than Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas, or even Utah! I don’t know if that reputation is deserved (past a certain point, is it possible to determing the most politically conservative or liberal states?), but, if so, it could explain the lack of investment in higher education.  The state is as rural and as sparsely populated as its neighbors, having barely half a million residents, but it has a slightly higher median household income ($53,802) than its four neighbors listed above.  Wyoming’s entire public higher education system consists of the University of Wyoming and 7 community colleges(!). There is no private, research university.  It’s only private college was not founded until 2007 and is a Catholic liberal arts college that has not yet won accreditation.  This is the only state in the union (so far) in which I have not found any educational “hidden gem,” public or private, although Wyoming Catholic College may grow into one.

6. Utah:  Utah  has the largest population of the very sparsely populated states of the non-coastal Northwest, with just under 3 million people. With a land area of slightly over 82 million square miles, Utah has 33.4 people per square male–which is positively dense compared with its neighbors.  It is also more prosperous with a median income for a family of 4 of $56, 330 per annum.  The citizens of Utah have invested some of that money into higher education. There are 9 public, state-supported universities, of which 2 are public research universities: The University of Utah (Salt Lake City)(which includes not only the most respected law school in the state, but the state’s only medical school), and the flagship campus (Logan) of the Utah State University system. Also included in the “usual suspects” in Utah higher education is Brigham Young University, the only private, research university in Utah–founded, owned, and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). BYU is the largest religious university in the country and the 3rd largest private, research university of any type.  Hidden Gem:

Westminster College (Salt Lake City).  Located in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Westminster College was founded in 1875 as Protestants flocked to Utah to convert Mormons. Today, the anti-Mormon atmosphere is gone, but not the Protestant identity.  The only private comprehensive liberal arts college in Utah.  It has a limited number of masters’ degrees, mostly business-related, but over 34 undergraduate majors leading to the B.A. or B.S. degree.

The low population of this region limits the number and variety of higher educational opportunities, as does the smaller incomes of both citizens and state governments.  A conservative social and political outlook may, and, in the case of Wyoming, probably has, limited those opportunities further.  But in most of the states of this region there is still at least one “hidden gem,” an alternative to the warehouse education of most state university systems and most private research universities.  If some hardy souls want to plant some other alternative gems in this region, I think they might flourish.

April 14, 2012 - Posted by | colleges/universities, education


  1. I LOVE Dakota Wesleyan. As the world’s only 28-year-old McGovernite, it is a joy to do research and spend time in that great school. And there’s always a chance you’ll run into George at the coffeeshop on campus.

    Comment by alexvoltaire | April 24, 2012 | Reply

    • Cool. I’d love hear more personal testimony by students and alumni of the schools I profile–as well as other candidates for hidden gems.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 25, 2012 | Reply

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