College and Faith

Books, articles, and research telling us that and why students are leaving faith after high school are all the rage these days. From Almost Christian to You Lost Me, the numbers being reported aren’t encouraging. Some are suggesting that 40-50% of our Christian students will leave the faith once they graduate.

This post isn’t a suggested remedy or alarmist reaction to these trends. Instead, I want to look at one of the suggested reasons as to why students are leaving the church. I believe it’s one we need to debunk. It goes something like this:

When our Christian students go to college they are bombarded with teaching that is largely secular, even anti-religious. When they come up against these teachings they tend to trust their professors and begin doubting the faith they grew up with. This doubting leads them to leave the faith.

While this may be partially true, I wonder whether this is as significant a factor as some make us want to believe.

In his book Souls in Transition, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith says,

“For contemporary emerging adults, going to college does not increase the ‘risk’ of religious decline or apostasy as it did in the not-too-distant past. Some evidence now even suggests that it may actually decrease that risk, compared to not attending college.” (251)

Going to college, according to this study, may actually increase the likelihood of students having a faith that lasts, and isn’t that our goal?

Likewise, I came across an article entitled, “Religion and Class: From Harvard to the Quick Stop.” Again, written by a sociologist from Missouri State University looking into the effects of college attendance on religious faith. Schmalzbauer writes,

Recent studies of religion and higher education have found that college-educated Americans are less likely to drop out of church. In a 2007 article for Social Forces, Patheos Blogger Mark Regnerus and his colleagues reported that “emerging adults that avoid college exhibit the most extensive patterns of religious decline, undermining conventional wisdom about the secularizing effect of higher education.”

There are other fascinating statistics that suggest colleges are a place where religious affiliation is rising that you can read in the full article.

So college may actually be good for maintaining faith? If this article is correct, what does this mean for students and families who cannot afford college or for whom college is not a viable option? There are surely other options for helping our graduates “keep the faith,” but I think these studies are on to something.

I’ve been thinking recently about the students who take a year or two off before school to work and earn money for college. I’ve also been more aware of our students who are attending the local community college while living at home. It has been very hard to connect these students to any ministries in the life of the church. They aren’t “youth group” age anymore though a part of me grieves the distinction we’ve made in youth ministry between an 18 year old high school senior and a college freshmen, yet another part of me believes it is simply a stage in growing up, maturing, and moving on in one’s faith journey.

So what do we do with these “souls in transition,” particularly the ones who do not immediately attend college or those who are not traditional students living in the dorms in some far away city? I realize that the problem isn’t something that happens upon graduation. Instead, the problem with kids walking away from faith has everything to do with faith development during their childhood and early adolescence. That being said, this is OUR problem to address. Parents, students, youth pastors, churches – these are OUR kids, and we need to prepare them better for what is next. Whether that is traditional four-year university or continuing to live at home to earn money or begin a technical career, it is our job to raise children to know and love the Lord. Not just for the time that they are in our homes or stuck in our youth programs, but for their lifetime!


Brian Z. said...

So here is my question: I think I can go along with many of the thoughts in this post but does it change when the context is such that college question is not a matter of if but where. I don't think i have had a student (maybe one) in 10 years that hasn't gone to college or was even an option to not attend a 4 year university. The question that my students wrestle with is where and how can I get into the best place. My concern is that faith is scene as a vestige of their highschool life and a insignificant factor into their college choice or college experience.

Chad McDaniel said...

great question Brian! i think you're right, faith is usually not the primary factor is deciding where to go to school. that's the larger issue at hand when it comes to students "leaving" the faith - that is, their faith is usually the second, third, maybe even fourth priority in making decisions.

all of this has led me to reconsider some of the ways we do programming for student ministries. one of the biggest things i'm hoping to address is preparing seniors for life after high school. they need to be more ready to look for church, look for campus ministries, engage in Bible studies, etc.