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
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
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 logicalthe approach of the head
while my wife was influenced more by
the heartby 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
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
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 religionthe 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-
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
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 decisionsin the first year of
college especiallyis 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
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 anythingeverythingand 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.
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
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
welcomes inquiries and responses via
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.