The Blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

August 08, 2011

Is there hope for the college-bound student?

Micheal Hickerson

Pastor, author, and former seminary president James Emery White offers sobering words for students heading to college this fall.

“According to recent studies, almost half of all American college students will abandon their Christian faith during their undergraduate years.”

He attributes a large part of this trend to educational climate at American universities, specifically the anti-Christian views of the typical college professor. 

Is this the full picture, though? As someone who works for a national campus ministry, I’m well aware of the many dangers facing college students. I’ve known many students who have indeed left behind their childhood faith during their college years. Sometimes, as White portrays, these students have put God out of their lives entirely. In just as many cases, however, these students have rejected the shallow faith of their childhood…and embraced a new, mature adult faith in the Christ who saves.

As White correctly notes, many studies have found that college education tends to reduce the strength of religious beliefs. Most of these studies, however, look at all adults, including those who attended college more than twenty years ago. Among many current college students and recent graduates, the college experience has become radically different.

In their 2009 book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Notre Dame sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell examined more recent studies of the effect of college on religious belief, and they found something very surprising:

“In every case, emerging adults currently in college are slightly more religious than those who are not in college.”(250, emphasis added)

Why would this be? After decades of strong research showing that college damages students’ faith, why would there be such a sudden and dramatic reversal of this trend? Smith and Snell identify several factors, including:

  • the influence of campus ministries like InterVarsity
  • secular colleges and universities coming to realize the importance of religion and spirituality
  • an increasing number of Christian faculty at secular universities

InterVarsity has seen the impact of all of these factors. I could cite any number of examples. Here are just a few:

-The past few years have been some of our strongest ever, in terms of chapter growth and students coming to faith in Christ. Even the New York Times noticed.

- At public universities like Ohio State University and San Diego State University, InterVarsity chapters have partnered with university administrations to combat human trafficking and racial prejudice.

- InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries have seen a growing number of Christian faculty communities at secular universities.

- InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network, which helps today’s Christian students become tomorrow’s Christian faculty, has seen 132 of its members obtain faculty positions over the last four years, mostly at secular colleges and universities.

James Emery White shares a story about his daughter’s encounter with a skeptical professor seeking to destroy students’ faith. Those professors are out there, but so are Christian faculty like Illinois Professor of the Year Lendol Calder.

InterVarsity Alum: Lendol Calder on “Uncoverage” from InterVarsity-twentyonehundred on Vimeo.

What should parents do for their children heading to college this fall? White suggests a final word of teaching followed by prayer, both of which are always good. Based on Smith and Snell’s research, I’d like to suggest some additional ideas for parents:

- Take your own faith seriously. A high parental commitment to faith is the number one factor in helping teens develop a strong spiritual life of their own.

- Help your teens get involved with a campus ministry or church that values prayer, the Bible, and personal involvement. Smith and Snell found that personal experiences and practices like regular prayer and Bible study were especially true for teens who encountered doubts about religious beliefs.

- Help your teens find mentors who share your faith. It’s vital for college students to have older mentors they can turn to for support. In my experience, though, students don’t often know how to develop these kinds of relationships. Think of ways that you can nurture relationships between your teenage children and adult members of your church, campus ministers or Christian professors at their college, or your own “friends in the faith.”

Finally, as White says, do pray. Nothing can guarantee the direction a student will take in college. More importantly, though, nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even professors.


Find an InterVarsity chapter anywhere in the country.

Find other Christian campus ministries.

Read How To Choose a College and Keep Your Faith.

Check out the Emerging Scholars Blog.

Watch additional videos of Christian faculty.

Micheal Hickerson is the Associate Director for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network.


An excellent addition to the concerns my short piece raised. Nicely done, and a good addendum. In A Mind for God (InterVarsity Press), I make a similar case. Thanks for the thoughts, which again, I wholly support. - James Emery White

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