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    When a Christian Teen Attends a Non-Christian College

    Research suggests that college choice has an impact on religious commitment.

    Steve Henderson

    Christian teen at a non-Christian collegeDr. Steve Henderson is the founder and President of Christian Consulting for Colleges and Ministries. His ongoing national study on what happens to Christian kids if they attend non-Christian colleges has been a widely quoted source for promoting the value of a Christian college education. In this article, Henderson presents 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.

    Right now, hundreds of thousands of Christian young people are in the process of making one of the most important choices of their lives—where to attend college.

    This is not the most important choice they will ever make. That distinction belongs to the choice of accepting Jesus Christ as personal savior. Other important choices include the choice of a spouse and the choice of a career.

    While each of these choices is distinct, they are not unrelated. Most of us fail to appreciate the extent to which the choice of a college relates to these other important life choices. The literature and the research (as well as the experiences of many) suggest a strong link between a young person's choice of a college and their short-term and long-term commitment to Christian faith.

    The Price versus the Cost

    For those who are dedicated to recruiting young people for Christian colleges and universities, one common response causes much frustration: "We just can't afford a Christian college."

    The truth is attending any college comes with a significant price tag. Attending a Christian college may require higher out-of-pocket costs than do some other institutions, especially public institutions, as state subsidies for public education can be difficult to match. However, my typical response to this question is to ask another question. "Is the lower price tag worth the potential cost?"

    Unfortunately, I know about cost. Some pain still 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 also recall the shock and grief that came not long after when I learned that drugs and alcohol had become so much a part of her lifestyle that they were putting her in grave danger.

    The choices my daughter made brought over a decade of grief to our family. 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.

    The painful memories have inspired me to dedicate much of my life to studying the impact of college choice on religious commitment. 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 every child, every parent, and each situation are unique.

    I also don't dismiss the argument that Christian young people have the opportunity to become salt and light at non-Christian colleges. However, research 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 won't purify that environment. 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. In addition, the college years are a time when core values from childhood are tested, sorted, and prioritized in ways that often will last a lifetime. This is also a time when people move from an imposed faith to an owned faith, one that is a foundation for their entire life structure.

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