Souls in Transition – How does College affect Spiritual Life?

Does going to college cause Christians to walk away from their faith?

To many people this seems like a question whose answer is a foregone conclusion. It is widely believed that university education is detrimental to religion. Christian parents fear what will happen to the faith of their children when they go away to college. Many campus ministers, myself included I have to say, have spoken of how college serves up large challenges to faith whether in the classroom or through peer pressure. Further, we all know people who were religious while teenagers and who lost their faith during college.

In Souls in Transition, Christian Smith and Patricia Snell report that when scholars looked at this question more recently the results were surprising: “they found that the religiously undermining effect of higher education on recent generations of youth has disappeared…Higher education no longer seems to diminish the religion of emerging adults” (248). Smith and Snell site studies that found it was those who do not attend college who are most likely to experience a decline in religious commitment (249).

It is not as if all those who fear young people losing their faith when they go to college are just misinformed and wrong. Older sociological research substantiated these fears. Smith and Snell say that the change in college’s affect on religion represents a “major shift in the role of higher education” (249). In other words, going to college once was detrimental to faith but in the last two decades a shift has taken place to the point where going to college is either beneficial or simply has no effect on religious faith.

What has caused this change? Smith and Snell suggest many possibilities (249-251):

1. The growing influence of campus-based ministries that provide “alternative plausibility structures for sustaining religious faith and practice in college.”

2. College and universities themselves appear to be changing their “attitudes and programs in ways that are more supportive of the religious and spiritual interests of their students.”

3. A growing number of evangelical and Catholic faculty teaching at secular universities who provide role models to religious students for how to integrate education and religion.

4. Growth of religious universities who teach students to integrate faith and education and go on to influence the culture at large

5. Perhaps the most interesting one is a combination of two trends. First, there has been a decline in students’ interest in answering questions about the meaning of life, questions that on campus would have received mostly secular answers during the 20th century. Second, there has been an increase in students’ desires to become financially wealthy which to them is a religiously neutral matter. In other words, more students go to college to get good jobs and make money rather than to dive into profound philosophical and religious questions. Such subjects are confined to the grudgingly required, sometimes interesting, and soon forgotten, “gen-eds.”

7. Young people are less rebellious then previous generations and more conventional in terms of religion.

8. More generally, American culture, and perhaps Western culture, has shifted from a secular to a post-secular era in which secular assumptions are no longer simply taken for granted. Instead religion is given a place at the table and allowed into the discussion.

Smith and Snell’s own research on emerging adults group found that while the transition to emerging adulthood from the teen years does include an overall decline in religious involvement, attending college does not contribute to this decline. Actually, there is a very slight possibility that not attending college is more likely to contribute to religious decline. So in conclusion: “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 the risk, compared to not attending college” (251).

This is very encouraging to those of us working in campus ministry because it demonstrates that lives, and cultures, can be changed. This shift has at least partially been caused by the success of campus ministry. It shows that having Christians on campus is absolutely essential to the mission of the church.

There is one question I am trying to get my mind around and I am not really sure how to put it. Basically, when campus ministers visit churches and talk about campus ministry, or when university life becomes a topic of discussion among Christians, how do we describe it? Do we use fear-based rhetoric, portraying college as a place where Christians go to lose their faith? How is this detrimental? Is this manipulation to gain financial support? I wonder…

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