A Question of Price versus Cost, part 1:
A Christian college education comes with a price. But research suggests that every penny of that price may be worth avoiding the cost of the alternatives.
by Steve Henderson, Ed.D.
Life, in many ways, boils down to choices. The choices we make go a long way toward determining how our lives will unfold. Right now, hundreds of thousands of Christian young people are in the process of making one of the most important choices of their lives—where to attend college.
This is not the most important choice they will ever make. That distinction belongs to the choice of accepting Jesus Christ as personal savior. Other important choices include the choice of a spouse and the choice of a career.
While each of these choices is distinct, they are not unrelated. Most of us fail to appreciate the extent to which the choice of a college relates to these other important life choices. The literature and the research (as well as the experiences of many) suggest a strong link between a young person's choice of a college and their short-term and long-term commitment to Christian faith.
"We Can't Afford It"
For those who are dedicated to recruiting young people for Christian colleges and universities, one common response causes much frustration, even irritation. The response is: "We just can't afford a Christian college."
The truth is attending any college comes with a significant price tag. In spite of the persistent efforts of most Christian colleges to be affordable, I acknowledge that, in general, attending a Christian college requires higher out-of-pocket costs than do other institutions, especially public institutions, as state subsidies for public education can be difficult to match. However, my typical response to this question is to ask another question. "Is the lower price tag worth the potential cost?"
Unfortunately, I know something about cost, as some of the pain still lingers from seeing one of my own children self-destruct. I can remember how proud I was to see my dynamic, scholarship winning, powerfully Christian daughter move in as a freshman at a well-respected public institution. I can also recall the shock and grief that came not long after when I began to learn that drugs and alcohol had become so much a part of her lifestyle that they were putting her and some of her friends in grave danger.
I witnessed the choices she was making bring over a decade of grief to her and to our family. Thankfully, after many years of prayer, counsel, and encouragement, my daughter is being restored. In fact, she is now an incredible and successful woman. She gave me permission to cite her story with the hope of helping other families avoid the pain that we experienced.
The painful memories have inspired me to dedicate much of my life to studying the impact of college choice on religious commitment. It is not my intention to "scare" anyone into making the choice for a Christian school. Neither do I contend that a Christian college or university is always the best choice for a family, as every child, every parent, and each situation are unique.
Furthermore, I do not dismiss the argument that Christian young people have the opportunity to become salt and light at non- Christian colleges. But the reality does not live up to the vision. Research plainly shows that most students are unprepared for the conflict of worldviews they will encounter at non-Christian colleges and universities. Dropping a beautiful diamond into the mud will not purify that environment. Rather it may dirty the gem until it is unrecognizable. I feel a strong obligation to share with Christian young people and their parents some of what I have discovered, to help them make fully informed decisions.
Numerous authors point to the significant transition that takes place in the college years. Teenagers enter this time still children in many ways. They leave as adults. They shift from parental control and dependence to self-control and more self-reliance. In addition, the college years are a time when core values from childhood are tested, sorted, and prioritized in ways that often will last a lifetime. This is also a time when people move from an imposed faith to an owned faith, one that is a foundation for their entire life structure.
Noted student development authority Art Chickering (as well as Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, in their classic How College Affects Students) is among those who point to the college years as one of the most significant times in a student's "search for identity." This is a time that greatly shapes the adult he or she will become. What happens if this major metamorphosis takes place in a nonsupportive environment (at best) or a hostile one (at worst)? The results of nearly 25 years of research consistently reveal that those who do not attend a Christ-centered college will experience a decline in religious values, attitudes, and behaviors during college.
Despite some exceptions, the research clearly establishes that enrollment in selective, prestigious, non-religiously affiliated colleges (i.e., typical secular private colleges) or public colleges and universities correlates with significant decreases in religious affiliation and behavior, such as church attendance, praying, reading the Bible, and discussing religion. On the other hand, enrollment in church-related colleges of all types tends to support and strengthen the student's existing religious values and behaviors.
To be sure, many fine Christian educators occupy the classrooms of non-Christian institutions. And no Christian college can guarantee that it will be the perfect place with perfect people who
can perfectly attend to everyone who enrolls. Undoubtedly, some Christian young people are secure, stable, courageous, prepared and committed enough to survive and even thrive in their faith no matter where they attend. However, the percentages are not on their side.
Steve Henderson, President of Christian Consulting for Colleges and Ministries, Inc., authored this article based on his research on the faith commitments of college students at evangelical and secular colleges. In his work with Christian Consulting, Henderson, a strong advocate of Christian college education, has assisted nearly 150 colleges, giving him the opportunity to touch the lives of thousands of students over the years.
Prior to founding Christian Consulting, Henderson, who has a doctoral degree from the University of Arkansas in Higher Education Administration with an emphasis on marketing, served as vice-president for recruitment consultation at the Noel•Levitz Center for Enrollment Management (the largest higher education consulting firm in the U.S.). He has served as dean of enrollment management and director of admissions at Oral Roberts University. He also served as the assistant vice chancellor of enrollment management for the University of Arkansas.
Henderson, who also holds an MBA from the University of Portland and a BA from Oral Roberts University, speaks frequently at national and statewide conferences on college student related topics. In this article, Henderson presents his studies on the relationship between college affiliation and religious commitment in conjunction with the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles.
This article, which was published in the March 2006 issue of Christianity Today, is reprinted with permission.