When we speak of the price of a Christian education, many think only of dollar signs. True, expenses have risen, and one can no longer attend a Christian college for approximately $1,000 a year as I did when I began my freshman year of college! However, we must distinguish between the “price” of a Christian education and its mere “cost.” We may have to expend precious dollars in order to manage the “cost” of the training of our children–the precious ones for whom we have been accounted stewards by our heavenly Master–but we can never measure the true “price” of that training in light of eternity. Moreover, the spiritual, moral, emotional, and sociological costs; as well as other expenses of substituting a secular education for a Christian one can be high indeed.
As fundamentalists, we have often beat the drum of Christian education quite loudly–and for good reasons. Recently I found an excellent article supporting our concerns from an unexpected source (at least for me). The March 2006 edition of Christianity Today contains a special advertising section titled “A Question of Price versus Cost” (pp. 80-106). The author is Steve Henderson, President of Christian Consulting for Colleges and Ministries, Inc. Mr. Henderson conducted extensive research on “the faith commitments of college students at evangelical and secular colleges.” Mr. Henderson unabashedly advocates the value of Christian college education and has assisted nearly 150 colleges. Henderson has “a doctoral degree from the University of Arkansas in Higher Education Administration with an emphasis on marketing” (p. 80). He is also a graduate of Oral Roberts University and the University of Portland. He has served at Oral Roberts University as dean of enrollment management and director of admissions, at the University of Arkansas as the assistant vice chancellor of enrollment management, and at Noel Levitz Center for Enrollment Management; Noel Levitz is “the largest higher education consulting firm in the U.S.” (p. 80). In this article he evaluates the “relationship between college affiliation and religious commitment” (p. 82) while using the resources available at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.
Dr. Henderson begins by pointing out the “strong link between a young person’s choice of a college and their short-term and long-term commitment to Christian faith” (p. 82). He admits up front that “attending any college comes with a significant price tag” (p. 81). But, after seeing one of his own children “self-destruct” with drugs and alcohol in a secular institution and dealing painfully with the aftermath for more than 10 years, he determined to “dedicate much of [his] life to studying the impact of college choice on religious commitment” (p. 82). Many piously point to the scriptural admonition to become “salt and light” in the midst of a “crooked and perverse generation”; where better to carry out that admonition than at a secular college? However, “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.” Henderson proceeds with the illustration of a “beautiful diamond” dropped into mud. Obviously the diamond fails to purify the mud, but the mud “may dirty the gem until it is unrecognizable” (p. 82).
Dr. Henderson reports that nearly 25 years of research indicates conclusively that those students who do not attend “a Christ-centered college will experience a decline in religious values, attitudes, and behaviors during college” (p. 82). Why? Because teenagers in many ways are still children when they leave for college; they are in process of shifting from parental control to self-reliance; they are gradually developing life’s core values; they move from “an imposed faith” to “an owned faith” (p. 82). During the college years the student searches for his identity; “the adult he or she will become” largely takes shape during the college years. How can such a metamorphosis take place successfully for a Christian young person in an environment that is “non-supportive” (at best) and “hostile” (at worst)? (p. 82)
Research clearly establishes that “religious affiliation” and behavior patterns of church attendance, praying, Bible reading, and witnessing significantly decrease in the lives of those Christian youth who have attended either secular private colleges or public colleges and universities (p. 82). On the other hand, students who attend “church related colleges of all types” are strengthened in their “existing religious values and behaviors” (p. 86). Yes, there are exceptions. But the rule is reliable: “More than 52 percent of incoming freshmen who identify themselves as born-again upon entering a public university will either no longer identify themselves as born-again four years later or even if they do still claim that identification, will not have attended any religious service in over a year” (p. 86). More than half of evangelical kids attending such universities end up rejecting their family’s values! The situation is similar at secular private colleges. Catholic colleges fare even worse–70% end up rejecting the values held when enrolling.
When young people enroll in college, they are often questioning the religious beliefs of their parents (57%) or outright disagree with their parents (52%). Many “feel distant from God” (65%; p. 86). Unless these young people find themselves in a solid Christian environment, they will not likely find the right answers. This is especially true because of the extreme liberalism of the large majority of college faculty. Dr. Henderson mentions a Washington Post article which communicated that “most faculty at non-Christian colleges disdain Christianity, with 72 percent indicating they are liberal, 84 percent favoring abortion, and 67 percent indicating homosexuality is acceptable” (p. 86). Generally students will reflect the values of their faculty members–especially those they have in their upper level courses. Upper level faculty tend to be the mentors and advisors of the students.
Mr. Henderson examined survey responses of almost 16,000 students from 133 different institutions. Here are his primary findings. They are all extremely interesting.
- “The affiliation of the college attended does appear to be related to the student’s overall change in religious commitment as well as to the students’ [sic] adherence to the incoming religious preference” (p. 86).
- “Students who choose to attend a non-affiliated independent institution (secular private), state, Presbyterian, and Catholic affiliated institutions appear to experience the largest declines in overall religious commitment” (p. 86). It is interesting to note that the largest decline in religious commitment takes place in private, non-religious institutions. Henderson comments, “This bears out the reality that, though most renowned secular private universities started with a religious commitment, many have become nearly antagonistic to faith” (p. 86).
- “Students who attend independent Protestant, Baptist and other Protestant affiliated institutions report the largest increases in overall religious commitment” (p. 96). Henderson comments, “This increase in religious commitment stands out especially when compared to the major decreases at secular private and public colleges. Those attending public versus independent-Protestant institutions, for example, experience nearly four times the drop in church attendance and fifteen times the drop in overall spirituality” (p. 96).
- “Students who attend institutions that are members of the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU), when compared to those who attended non-member institutions, showed significant positive differences on almost all individual measures of religious commitment, as well as an overall increase in that commitment” (p. 96).
- “A drop in religious service attendance was by far the greatest negative change for the population studied” (p. 96). However, “the smallest drop is for students attending Baptist institutions (followed by independent-Protestant colleges) … . Most authors agree that this one variable, church attendance, is the most important factor for measuring and predicting the current and long-term religious commitment of people of all ages” (p. 98).
- “In many cases, the more conservative the student’s denominational background, the greater the change at no-affiliation private (secular) and public institutions” (p. 98). Dr. Henderson then makes a very important observation: “Most of the change in students’ attitudes and behaviors takes place during the first year away from home” (p. 98). The student finds support for slack religious observance from both his peers and his faculty.
Does the Christian parent’s responsibility to “train up a child” end once the child completes high school? The results of this study indicate a firm “no” answer. We must not abdicate our responsibility merely because our child is willful. The word in Proverbs 22:6 cannot be limited to children and early teens. Most 17- or 18-year-olds are not yet ready to tackle life without continued parental involvement. Dr. Henderson then presents an astounding fact. We saw earlier that students tend to reflect the values of their upper level instructors. However, “they also tend to reflect these same values 25 years later” (p. 102). We are not dealing with a short-term problem here. The lives of our children and grandchildren for generations to come are at stake.
But the situation is worse. There are approximately 400,000 high school seniors each year who could qualify for admission to a Christian college. Of that number only 15% (65,000) attend any kind of Christian college. If Christian education and Christian parents lose the remaining Christian youth at only the 52% rate, “that means that at least 177,000 young people have moved away from the faith. Strengthening the faith of the 65,000 who attend Christian colleges is commendable, but having three times that many fall away is horrendous.”
Steve Henderson concludes this amazing article with an account of one of my favorite texts of Scripture–a text I have preached more than a half dozen times over the years. He develops the text the same way I have when I have preached it. We read in Daniel 1 that king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded Judah and took captive some of the best and brightest of the young people of Judah. He brought them to Babylon, removing them from their family support group, their religious friends and neighbors, their religious leaders, and even their home environment. He enrolled them in an intensive educational training program that involved nutritional, social, and religious elements. He intentionally sought to change the religious values of these young men by demanding compromises in their religious values; by teaching them humanistic educational tenets and pagan, polytheistic religious principles; and even by changing their names so they would reflect the gods of Babylon instead of the God of Judah. This training program lasted three years. How can we fail to see similarities to the humanistic, secular educational system in our own land?
We really do not know how many young people succumbed to the secular training system of Babylon. We do know this. Of the many who were enrolled, only four came out unscathed: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. “All of the others who bowed to that system lost their future, their past, their purity, their heritage, and most likely their God” (p. 106). Henderson points out that even these four likely were emasculated, suffering physical scars that would last for a lifetime. Even if our children survive our system of secular education, “what marks and scars will [they] bear”? Over half of our best and brightest are now bowing the knee; which ones will it be in the future? Henderson suggests that one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity was “the result of the complacency of the parents for generations not standing firm on their Scriptural religious values” (p. 106). We cannot afford to be complacent about the long-term spiritual wellbeing of our children and grandchildren. They are far too precious.
In addition to the above content, Henderson’s article also contains recommendations for students (pp. 90, 92), for parents (pp. 96, 98), and for religious leaders (p. 102). If you would like to see the full text of his study, go to www.christianconsulting.net. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keith Gephart is a Bible instructor at International Baptist College (Tempe, AZ). He received B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). He has pastored three churches and authored The Folly of the Charismatics (BJU Press, 1981). God has blessed him and his wife, Cindi, with four children and six grandchildren.