For years I have listened to worried parents concerned higher education might somehow cause their children to lose their faith. I often observed the best and brightest students discouraged from attending college because of fears that their encounters in a science or philosophy class might cause them to abandon their Christian faith.

Indeed, some early studies seemed to support this view, eventually making it a bygone conclusion in many Christian circles, particularly conservative ones.

A new study by faculty at the University of Texas at Austin has evidence to contradict this conclusion and to support a new trend: those who go on to higher education are more likely than their peers to remain faithful to their faith tradition.

Notably, today’s college-bound students are looking less for answers to life’s big questions than an advantage in the job market. They care less about education for education’s sake than a degree. To someone with a Humanities degree who made a career of higher education, this is somewhat disturbing. I encountered a lot of valuable ideas in college, so it is easy for me to think everyone else should too.

However, if parents, godparents, and pastors are doing their jobs and discussing the big questions of faith and life, a student could reasonably arrive for their freshman year having wrestled with questions of faith, and not feel the need to focus their education on these issues. We can look around us and reasonably ascertain that youth are facing difficult subjects (sex, drugs, etc…) at a younger age. We really shouldn’t be waiting until they are 18 to talk about these things nor wait until they attend a comparative religion or philosophy class to tackle the big questions about life.

It could also be said that for all the good they did as parents, parents in the 50s and 60s (the “Leave It To Beaver” parents) didn’t do such a great job with open discussion with their adolescent children. As a result, Baby Boomers arrived and settled in their dorm rooms looking for answers to questions they didn’t feel they could ask their parents. They were fodder for those eager to influence.

The second reason given in the study is that American colleges, even state universities, are less hostile to religion than they once were. Campus ministies exploded in response to the assault on religion, and this coupled with “tolerance” (arguably a double-edged sword) has led to increasing support for students of faith both in and out of the classroom.

The study did note that while students typically didn’t feel their beliefs waned in college, often religious practice does. Late adolescence/early adulthood mark independence from supervision (though that is often lacking much earlier) and the first marked opportunity to deviate from familial expectations without serious repercussion. Mom and Dad no longer have control. Mark Regnerus (one of the authors of the U of TX study) hinted at this in an interview with Christianity Today. Youth may have made the mental deviation from their parents faith/values much earlier, but not had the chance to act on it until they are on their own. This makes it easy for Mom and Dad to blame that wretched Philosophy professor or the Christian college administration that didn’t enforce their beliefs on young Johnny.

For some of these students, poor choices or a lifestyle that doesn’t coincide with their “beliefs” will lead them to eventually abandon their faith. This can be frustrating for parents and pastors. However, it can’t really be blamed on “college.” Others will sow a few wild oats, recognize that this is unfulfilling and doesn’t coincide with who they want to be, and move on to mature choices that reflect their faith. A third group will remain strongly convinced of their faith and live accordingly. Probably all of us pray for our children to be in this group.

As a parent, I can understand why some parents are fearful of higher education. However having worked with junior high through college-aged students in both collegial and church settings, I have yet to have someone tell me that they lost their faith due to a certain professor or a textbook or a program they underwent in school. My friends who abandoned their beliefs did so because they couldn’t truly hold them and live the lifestyles they wanted to. For some that was enough. Others wanted to justify their actions and went on a quest to find information to support their decisions. If anything is to be blamed it is parents that taught them self-fulfillment at all costs and who failed to recognize any outside authority in their own lives. If parents don’t obey authorities (the law, the Church) they set themselves up as the ultimate authority. Their children follow suit and whatever “I believe” (or “feel”) becomes the test of faith.

I believe my faith was strengthened with learning, through the study of science, philosophy, literature, and history. I don’t think it can be lost when students engage with real questions and are willing to make the life choices that set aside their base desires to attain to a life that demands the denial of self. To act like college might threaten their faith, is to hand our children an insecurity that makes them question if we really believe we have The Answer. If we are certain of our Christian faith, why should we be afraid to have our children question it?

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