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    Investing in Their Faith

    How your teen's college choice can impact their future

    Steve Henderson

    NOTE: Steve Henderson is president of Christian Consulting for Colleges and Ministries, Inc. He has a doctoral degree in Higher Education Administration with an emphasis on marketing from the University of Arkansas. This article focuses on his studies on the relationship between college affiliation and religious commitment in conjunction with the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

    As I speak around the country about the advantages of Christian colleges, it is common for people to approach me afterwards with a story to tell. Typically it's a mom who tells me about the pain her family has had to endure because of a child who went off to a secular college and was drawn into a lifestyle marked by drug abuse, alcoholism, promiscuity, or, in some cases, more than one of the above.

    Sometimes, she will say something like,"He's doing better now, but he's still not back to us."Other times, the assessment is worse, as families contend with the pain that results from a child who is lost in the spiritual desert of secular academia.

    Oftentimes, parents want to send their child to a Christian school but feel they cannot afford it. For people who are dedicated to recruiting young people for Christian colleges and universities, the words "We just can't afford a Christian college" are a source of great frustration.

    It's true that, in spite of the persistent efforts of Christian colleges to be as affordable as possible without compromising quality, attending a Christian college most often requires higher out- of-pocket costs than do other institutions, especially public institutions. However,my response to the concern is to ask, "Is the lower price tag worth the potential cost?"

    Unfortunately, I know something about cost, as some of the pain lingers from seeing one of my own children self-destruct. I remember how proud I was to see my dynamic, scholarship winning, powerfully Christian daughter move in as a freshman at a well-respected public institution. I can also recall the shock and grief that came not long after when I began to learn that drugs and alcohol had become so much a part of her lifestyle that they were putting her and some of her friends in grave danger.

    I witnessed the choices she was making bring over a decade of grief to her and to our family. The emotional pain my wife suffered was at times unbearable to watch. Thankfully, after many years of prayer, counsel, and encouragement,my daughter is being restored. In fact, she is now an incredible and successful woman. She gave me permission to cite her story with the hope of helping other families avoid the pain that we experienced.

    In retrospect, I can see that, in making the decision about where our daughter would go to school, I focused mainly on the logical—the approach of the head— while my wife was influenced more by the heart—by feelings and emotions. I've seen this same dynamic in many families, and usually it's the father who takes the head approach. I could have helped my family avoid a lot of pain if I'd listened a bit more to my heart.

    The decision process can be especially difficult for wives of unsaved husbands. Protecting the faith of a child may not make sense to an unsaved spouse. I encourage Christian parents who find themselves in this position to present the facts carefully and to emphasize that going the secular route puts at great risk the lifestyle the family has encouraged through years.

    As for me, the painful memories have inspired me to dedicate much of my life to studying the impact of college choice on religious commitment (adherence to incoming religious preference and participation in expression and practice of that faith). It is not my intention to "scare" anyone into making the choice for a Christian school.Neither do I contend that a Christian college or university is always the best choice for a family, as each situation is unique, as is every child and every parent.

    I do not dismiss the argument that Christian young people have the opportunity to be salt and light at non-Christian colleges. Unfortunately, however, the reality does not live up to this vision, admirable though it is. Research plainly shows that most students are unprepared for the conflict of worldviews they will encounter at non- Christian colleges and universities. Dropping a beautiful diamond into the mud will not purify the mud. Rather it may dirty the gem until it is unrecognizable.

    Pivotal Years

    Numerous authors point to the significant transition that takes place in the college years. Teenagers enter this time still children in many ways. They leave as adults. They shift from parental control and dependence to self-control and more self-reliance. This is also a time when people move from an imposed faith to an owned faith.

    What happens if this major metamorphosis takes place in a non-supportive environment (at best) or a hostile one (at worst)? The results of nearly 25 years of research consistently reveal that those who do not attend a Christcentered college will experience a decline in religious values, attitudes, and behaviors during college.

    Despite some exceptions, the research clearly establishes that enrollment in a typical secular private or public college correlates with significant decreases in religious affiliation and behavior, such as church attendance, praying, reading the Bible, and discussing religion—the combination of factors used to determine religious commitment in the study. On the other hand, enrollment in churchrelated colleges of all types tends to support and strengthen the student's existing religious values and behaviors.

    A few years ago, George Fox University professor Gary Railsback, a fellow researcher, prepared an interesting study. Using his data, I determined that more than 52 percent of incoming freshmen who identify themselves as born-again upon entering a public university will either no longer identify themselves as born-again four years later or, if they still claim that identification, will not have attended any religious service in more than a year.

    This pattern of rejection was similar at secular private colleges and much worse (63 percent) at Catholic colleges. Newer data show a similar rejection pattern across all types of institutions except for students attending a purposefully Christian college. The bottom-line is that if the past is a fair indication of the future, at least half and possibly over two-thirds of our kids will step away from their faith while attending non- Christian institutions.

    Quantifying the Impact

    Both my study and Railsback's conclude that there are significant differences in religious commitment depending on the type or affiliation of the college attended. For my study, I examined the responses of nearly 16,000 students attending 133 institutions. All were measured as freshmen and again at least three years later using a comparable survey instrument in cooperation with the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The findings of my study, although more specific than earlier studies, are generally consistent with prior research.Here are the main findings:

    1. The affiliation of the college attended is related to students' overall change in religious commitment as well as to students' adherence to their incoming religious preference. In other words, there is a correlation between the type of college students choose and what happens to their religious commitment during the college years. There is also a relationship between the type of college attended and whether the student continues in his or her family's religious tradition.

    2. Students who attend a secular private, state,Presbyterian, or Catholic affiliated institution appear to experience the largest declines in overall religious commitment. These institutions are listed here in order of decline in religious commitment beginning with the largest overall decline. Students who attend secular private institutions show larger drops in religious commitment than any other type of college, even public institutions. Though most renowned secular private universities started with a religious commitment, many have become antagonistic to faith.

    3. Students who attend independent Protestant,Baptist and other Protestant affiliated institutions report the largest increases in overall religious commitment. These, again, are listed in order of increases in religious commitment from the largest overall increase. Students who attend these institutions consistently report increases in all measures of religious commitment. This increase in religious commitment stands out especially when compared to the major decreases at secular private and public colleges.Those attending public versus independent-Protestant institutions, for example, experience nearly four times the drop in church attendance and fifteen times the drop in overall spirituality.

    4. Students who attend institutions that are members of the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU),when compared to those who attended non-member institutions, showed significant positive differences on almost all individual measures of religious commitment. CCCU member institutions are set apart by their adherence to Christian principles, broader liberal arts programs, and commitment to hiring only believers as full-time faculty and administrators. Students who attend these institutions are often exposed to chapels and other worship experiences that reinforce these values. They also learn from (and are mentored by) faculty who exemplify these principles. Perhaps most important for students in this time of transition is that they attend, live, worship, and communicate with fellow students who endorse these same values. The differences in choosing a CCCU school versus a non-CCCU school are dramatic. For those attending non-CCCU schools the drop in church attendance is four times greater and the drop in prayer and meditation seven times greater than for those attending a CCCU school; inversely, for young people attending CCCU schools, the increase in overall religious commitment is nearly five times more than for students attending non-CCCU schools.

    5. A drop in religious service attendance was by far the greatest negative change for the population studied. There is a decrease in attendance of religious services across all students attending all types of colleges. Shifting from a possible parental expectation of attending all services and youth group meetings to a freedom of choice does offer an opportunity for students to shift to schedules more of their liking. However, the smallest drop is for students attending Baptist institutions (followed by independent-Protestant colleges) and is comparable to the small drop at CCCU schools.

    6. In many cases, the more conservative the student's denominational background, the greater the change at secular private and public institutions. Comparatively speaking, the degree of change is most pronounced among students from a more conservative background who attend a public or a secular private institution. To put it another way, students from more conservative backgrounds change more than those from less-conservative denominations when confronted with the challenges of these institutions.

    Most of the change in students' attitudes and behaviors takes place during the first year away from home. As discussed by Alyssa Bryant in an article in the Journal of College Student Development, students become significantly less religiously active during the first year of college. That this is the case should come as no surprise, as students, for the first time in their lives, are no longer directly under their parents' control and influence.

    Thus, being in an environment that includes both peer and faculty support for good decisions—in the first year of college especially—is one of the greatest benefits of attending a Christian college.

    "Train Up a Child"

    The Bible tells us, "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6 KJV). Two quick observations are appropriate. First, notice that the word is "should," not "would" or "could." The natural self-will of a child is often contrary to the will of the parent. On matters of lifelong importance, parents need to make sure that right choices are made. They should not abdicate this training/ leadership role to a willful child.

    Second, perhaps we have, albeit unintentionally, put a time limit on the word "train." It is clear that people in the era when this passage was written considered children of any age to be under parental authority until they had established their own families and careers. Perhaps we have come to the erroneous conclusion that our parental responsibility is finished at high school graduation.Most of us would agree, however, that the vast majority of 17-year-olds are not quite ready to start their own lives without some parental guidance.

    We need to understand the lifetime impact of good early training in light of the research.Not only do students typically reflect the values of the college professors of their senior year, but they tend to reflect these values 25 years later. Sadly, for the majority of students, the values lost in the transition do not revert to the family's values.

    Young people will inevitably search for their identity during the college years. However, students are using this time for exploration and experimentation that is often unhealthy and unholy. In Tom Wolfe's book, I am Charlotte Simmons, Charlotte's best friend says it well:

    I guess what I really mean is college is like this four-year period you have when you can try anything—everything—and if it goes wrong, there's no consequences. You know what I mean? Nobody's keeping score! You can do things that if you tried them before you got to college, your family would be crying and pulling their hair out and giving you these now-see-what-you've-goneand- done looks? … College is the only time in your life, or your adult life anyway, when you can really experiment, and at a certain point, when you graduate or whatever, everybody's memory like evaporates.

    Clearly, this vital, pivotal time of exploration is best negotiated in a structured, value-based setting that has the potential for safeguards and correction, not just accommodation.

    Let us not underestimate the magnitude of the problem. Of the approximately 400,000 high school seniors each year who would meet the admissions criteria for a CCCU college, only 15 percent (approximately 65,000) are attending any type of Christian college. If we lose them at only the 52 percent public university drop rate (remember that others have a higher rate) for all students who go to non-Christian colleges, that means that at least 177,000 young people have moved away from the faith, and, according to longitudinal measures, most will never return. Strengthening the faith of the 65,000 who attend Christian colleges is commendable, but having three times that many fall away is horrendous.

    Concluding Thoughts

    The morphing of students' family values has been happening for centuries. The scriptures record that due to their complacency in following God's plan, the Jewish people were brought under the control of the Babylonians. The Babylonians implemented a public educational agenda that called for the best and brightest Jewish children to be educated in the art, history, and language of the Chaldeans for a period equivalent to a four-year college education. The agenda was clear: change the students' location (separate from the family roots), change the support group (remove from family, friends and church), change their names (all were given non-Jewish names), and change their lifestyle (things that were detestable and unclean according to family tradition were forced on them).

    The similarities to today's non- Christian education is striking — many young people identify more with a fraternity or sorority instead of a church — they dabble in many things that would not be allowed in our homes.

    Of all those who were drafted into the Babylonian educational environment, we know of only four who stood, and only one by his given name, Daniel. It can be safely assumed that all the others who bowed to that system lost their future, their past, their purity, their heritage, and, most likely, their God. Even our four heroes most likely were emasculated, as was probably the norm for foreigners brought into the Babylonian court.

    What marks and scars will our children bear even if they make it through our public or secular education system? Which of our young students will bow to the world's system if they have to make that choice? More than half are doing it now.

    Fortunately, many of the responses to the talks I give are gratifying ones. I once heard from a youth pastor several months after I'd spoken to his youth group.He had his high school seniors write down their plans for the next year. One young woman wrote, "I was convinced by the presentation of that Henderson guy, and I am going to a Christian college." She may not have been sure of my name, but she surely heard the message "that Henderson guy" was trying to relate.

    My hope and prayer is that you will do the same. After all, we must not let future generations label us as complacent about something as important as the long-term spiritual lives of our children. Help them prepare for the college environment wherever they go, and, perhaps most importantly, help them choose wisely. Remember that the lower price may not be worth the cost.

    The full text of Steve Henderson's study, as well as an updated listing of related resources can be accessed at www.christianconsulting.net. Steve welcomes inquiries and responses via e-mail at steve@christianconsulting.net.