When you think about it, college is one of the most important decisions you will make. During those undergraduate years, you will learn not only what to think, but how to think. You will be encouraged to question many things during college, including your faith. And questioning your faith is not necessarily a bad thing--- it's a normal part of your development as a person. Think of it as unpacking your faith. By examining the validity of your belief in God against other philosophical and viewpoints, hopefully you will be able to re-pack your faith with your sources of truth (Bible, historical records, etc). And, by the way, going through this process does in fact make it your own faith.
But you need to know that the context of the college you attend will most likely impact what you will do with your faith. Not all colleges are the same when it comes to the development of your relationship with Christ. National research proves it. There are risks at any college, but especially at secular institutions. Respected higher education researcher, Alexander Astin, found that there were decreases in religious behaviors at public and selective, prestigious, non-religious colleges and universities1. In fact, a research study by Gary Railsback a decade ago found that 34% of all students who entered a public university claiming to be "born again"--- four years later upon graduation, no longer held to their faith. He also discovered an additional 28% of self-proclaimed Christian students, who, upon completion at a public university, had not attended a church or religious service in the previous year2. If you combine those two percentages, 52% deliberately or subtly stepped away from their faith.
Did you get that? That startling statistic predicts that "one out of two" of "Christian" kids like you at secular colleges and universities discard their faith by the time they finish their undergraduate degree.
A more recent study by Steve Henderson confirmed the negative effect of faith on college students at public universities and also found that private colleges that have a religious history, but have fallen away from those roots--- were most detrimental to students maintaining their Christian faith. Up to two-thirds of Christian students like yourself walk away from their relationship with God at these institutions.
This outcome reveals not only that these are difficult places for Christian students, but also the subtle difference between some institutions with a religious heritage and Christ-centered colleges and universities.
How can you tell the difference? Well, those that you can trust generally hold membership in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), or the North American Coalition for Christian Admissions Professionals (NACCAP). Henderson's research indicated, "...the affiliation of the college does appear to make a difference in the overall change in religiosity" (p. 150)3, and at these member Christian colleges, there was significant improvement of students' faith, rather than a tearing down effect.
So, buyer beware! In looking at the broad category of private colleges, be discerning. You need to be knowledgeable about the distinctives of the various college options and determine the best environment for you to not only survive spiritually, but flourish. So, keep this critical point in mind. Your faith development should be a paramount consideration of where you end up going to college.
You may be asking, "Is there reason for hope that I could survive in a public/non-religious institution?" The answer is "Maybe." While there are thousands of committed Christians at these universities growing in their faith in spite of the antagonism they encounter daily in their classes, as well as in the residence halls and fraternities/sororities--- there are just as many who are struggling. Here's some questions to cover with your parents to help figure out how you might do in a non-Christian environment:
Am I mature in faith to be able to withstand an antagonistic intellectual and social environment?
Do I know how to share my faith?
Do I have courage to stand up for my faith even against influential professors who in most cases are not believers, as well as the pressure from other students to exhibit negative, non-God honoring behavior?
Is my biblical knowledge strong enough to be able to discern truth from human wisdom and make godly decisions as a result?
Have I made linkages to campus ministry groups who serve the university?
Do I have a church in mind near the university that they can attend?
If you can't answer,"Yes" to these kinds of questions, than you should seriously question whether you should enroll at one of these institutions. You are vulnerable.
However, you may feel that God wants you to attend a public or non-Christian university. If so, here's some things to focus on as you prepare.
Study God's Word, the Bible. Passages such as Joshua 1:8 serve as an example to us, "Do not let this book of the law depart from your mouth: meditate on it day and night..." and II Timothy 2:15 encourages us to "Study to show thyself approved unto God..."
Be intentional about developing your personal relationship with Christ.
Keep closely tied to your church and immerse yourself into Bible studies with other students.
Stay involved in Christian clubs at your school or in the community.
Study how to present your faith to others. To be ready on a moments notice to share your faith.
Attend a worldview/ apologetics-based program for high schoolers such as those offered by Christian organizations such as Summit Ministries or Probe Ministries.
If God has directed you to a secular university context, know that there are some specific things to do and relationships to build that you will need to intentionally prioritize into your life if you want your faith to survive and hopefully thrive.
Regardless of where you go to college, you need to keep your spiritual development as a primary concern---otherwise you will find it very easy to drift away from the Lord.
As mentioned earlier, Christ-centered colleges and universities are places where students show significant gains in their spiritual development. But it doesn't stop there. That faith-enhancing value combined with their solid reputation for academic quality, make them an excellent choice for Christian students like yourself. Alumni from these institutions have high placement rates into the professions and marketplace--- not to mention having high acceptance rates into graduate schools. Be sure to check out these Christian universities as you are searching for colleges!
Dr. Thomas A. Shaw has served in higher education for over twenty years in enrollment management, as well as student and alumni-related areas. His latest book, Collegebound: What Christian Parents Need to Know About Helping Their Kids Choose a College (Moody Publishers), is an excellent resource.
1 Astin, A.W. (1977). Four critical years: Effects of college on beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2 Railsback, G.L. (1994). An exploratory study of religiosity and related outcomes among college students. [dissertation]. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.
3 Henderson, S. J. (2003). The impact of student religion and college affiliation on student religiosity [dissertation]. Fayetteville (AR): University of Arkansas.