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.


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  • Kevin

    Having graduated from college in 2010, I could not agree more with this interpretation of the current state of higher education.

    I went to a large, secular, state university for my freshman year (UNC-Charlotte, with a student body of about 25,000) then transferred to Franciscan University of Steubenville. Many of my friends went to other Catholic and “Catholic” colleges like Christendom, Xavier, and Notre Dame. Between my own experience at several schools and that of my close friends, I consider myself worthy of discussing these matters.

    Unless your child has an absolutely rock-hard faith, consider them lost if they go to a secular state school. Every single friend I had from high school who went to a state university is now, at best, a lukewarm Christian. The one exception, in my own experience, is the University of Illinois at Champagne Urbana. Their Newman center is really orthodox. Both of my brothers went there and greatly grew in their faith (one is now a seminarian).

    Having been at a state school for one year, myself, I can say how incredibly lonely and demoralizing it is to be the one moral person among thousands. At UNCC, for example, there is one “Catholic” group of about 20 people (out of 25,000!!!). It is run by a well-intentioned, but nonetheless wrong, liberal, feminist nun who never wears a habit. The students all sleep with each other, and take part in other such immoral behavior. No prayer ever occurs, besides blessing food. No serious theological or philosophical matters are ever discussed. It is difficult to describe what it feels like to stop and realize, “wow, I am literally the only person here who thinks that sleeping around is wrong, that excessive drinking is wrong.” No wonder so many people lose their faith!

    The “Catholic” universities are, if anything, worse. I visited a friend at Xavier (formerly “Saint Xavier”, why they dropped the “Saint” I don’t know) and was incredibly disgusted. It was just as bad as UNCC in terms of partying and premarital sex, not to mention things like immodest dress. Worse yet were the reports from my friend. He was only required to take ONE theology course during his entire time there. It was taught by an atheist who required them to read a book titled, “Is Religion Killing Us?” I’ll let you guess what the author’s conclusion was.

    But now to the good: My time at Franciscan was great. I grew in my faith there so much, it’s amazing. I thank God for bringing me there! Also, I can tell you first hand that there is almost no immorality amongst the students. Obviously nowhere is perfect, but the number of students who are either unchaste or party excessively are an incredibly small minority. Nothing like that EVER happens on campus. Furthermore, there is a positive peer-pressure that really discourages that behavior from ever gaining ground. I cannot say enough good things about Franciscan.

    I have not been to Christendom myself, but hear great things about them as well. One of my closest friends transferred from there, and said it was a great place.

    My advice to parents and their kids is the following:
    1) Go to Franciscan or Christendom
    2) Go to a school with a great Newman center like U of I; and there aren’t many of them
    3) If nothing else, go somewhere that their friends are going who have very strong moral character. The strongest of people will fail in these secular environments if they are alone.
    4) DO NOT go to a Jesuit school like Xavier. It will destroy your faith faster than a secular school! I cannot stress this enough!

  • I think the above advise is excellent and solid, obviously from someone who knows.

    The problem is things like money, grades, and ACT scores often determine that a Big Box Secular school is the only option. I wish that I could be sending my son to the Kings College in NYC – not Catholic but Christian and headed up by D’nesh Desouza who I admire greatly – but it is too costly. My child didn’t work hard enough in High School to get any kind of scholarship and his parents make just enough money that we can’t qualify for any grants or need-based scholarship.

    Sometimes you just have to go where you have to go and God help us. All I can do is pray for him.

  • PaddyOH

    I graduated from a Jesuit university (Loyola Marymount, in Los Angeles) in the late Eighties, and can’t speak to the current environment there. I will say, though, that Campus Ministry at that time did bolster my faith. Granted, some of the faculty running the Campus Ministry department seemed to be enamored with “liberation theology”, but they didn’t operate in a vacuum. What helped me were late-night Masses officiated on Wednesdays at 10:00 pm by priests who volunteered for that assignment, other students who took their faith seriously enough to argue gently with me about it, and a requirement that every student had to take a minimum of two theology classes. I hope those things are still in place.