College Students Need Help to Keep Their Faith


When my daughter was researching prospective colleges and universities a few years ago, she claimed for a time that her No. 1 choice was a world-famous Jesuit university in the East.

A friend, revealing a touch of cradle Catholic cynicism, joked, “I thought you were looking at Catholic schools.”

Ba dum ching.

Or maybe you need to be Catholic to get it.

The sad reality is, it doesn’t matter where our kids go to college. Almost half of them are likely to lose their Christian faith along the way, according to recent studies.

Despite the fact that up to 80 percent of high school seniors indicate their plan to remain faithful and to practice some form of worship during college, the Fuller Youth Institute has found that almost a third of college students say their institute of higher learning is not helpful in keeping or growing their faith.

Twenty-nine percent also say finding a church where they feel welcome while attending college is at least moderately difficult.

Wobbly faith during the college years isn’t uncommon – after all, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” On the other hand, examining one’s faith shouldn’t necessarily mean tossing it out with the empty beer cans.

Examining one’s faith in the intellectually stimulating environment of a college or university could and should lead to a deeper understanding of the theological tenets on which a childhood faith was built. That’s the theory, anyway.

Yet “Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago).” That’s the conclusion of political scientists Robert P. Putnam and David E. Campbell, presenting research from their book “American Grace” at the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, according to a 2010 Christianity Today article.

Nonbelief among young Americans is growing. In a 2009 survey, 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed “none” when asked about their religious affiliations – up from 11 percent in 1990.

Respect for Christianity, in particular, has been in decline among young people. In a 2007 study of teens and young adults, Christian research firm the Barna Group found that 16- to 29-year-olds were “more skeptical of and resistant to Christianity than were people of the same age just a decade ago.”

At the same time, behaviors and attitudes on college campuses cause justifiable concern. Administrators spend disproportionate amounts of time dealing with the emotional and physical toll of binge drinking, date rape and depression – evidence that the “best years” of our children’s lives often are marred by experiences and emotional problems that speak to a larger, more elemental yearning.

Given that it’s August, parents across America are making the trek to the local big-box stores to pick up items that will make a dorm room feel more like home. We’ll load up the minivan or the sport utility vehicle with beanbag chairs and extra-long twin sheets and new computer printers that come with bonus reams of paper.

But shame on us if we’re not packing the tools to stay sane and safe – a well-formed conscience, a grounded faith based on whatever beliefs we espouse and have chosen to instill, and especially a commitment to pray for and with our young adults as they head out into the larger world.

Most important, when you get to campus, make time to help your student find the ministry office and introduce yourselves to the folks there. Sometimes, just making that connection will be the difference between spiritual isolation and the development of a faith-filled home away from home.

It’s no guarantee that a young adult will keep the faith, but it’s encouragement that may come in handy down the road.

Copyright 2011 Marybeth Hicks


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1 Comment

  1. On a more optimistic note, the happy reality I have experienced is that it does matter where our kids go to college.

    Catholic parents and students can turn to the Cardinal Newman Society ( for more information about how to find an authentically Catholic college which will help, not hinder, the faith and religious convictions of its student body.

    A quick list of such colleges would include:

    Thomas Aquinas College (CA)
    Christendom College (VA)
    Thomas More College (NH)
    Wyoming Catholic College (WI)
    Ave Maria University (FL)
    Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH)
    John Paul the Great Catholic University (CA)
    Benedictine College (KS)
    Belmont Abbey College (NC)
    University of Dallas (TX)

    For more information, check out the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College and the Cardinal Newman Society website.

    I appreciate Mary Beth Hicks’ and the Pew Forums’ statistics, but as an alumna of both Thomas Aquinas College (CA) and the University of Notre Dame (IN), I can assure parents that there is an enormous difference between the new faithful colleges and the sadly unfaithful nominally Catholic universities.

    We can help our children choose a college that will continue the faith formation we have begun, a college that sees itself “in loco parentis” and helps our kids make the transition from young adults to independent adults. God bless you in these crucial decisions.

    Suzie Andres

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