It’s a concrete fear that many parents have: what if my kids lose their faith while in college?
Whether from peers who have had children leave the Church or from the abundant research on this very topic, the fear is real. It’s also justified. The fact is that many students do abandon their faith (intentionally or not) during the college years.
There are a number of reasons for this, including:
Access: with Catholic campus ministry on just over 800 campuses nationwide, this leaves thousands of campuses without Mass, a chaplain, a campus minister or any semblance of a faith community. Of the 1,000+ community colleges, it’s even worse.
A weak foundation: while we can bemoan the droves of young people who turn away from the faith while in college, it’s worth inquiring about the strength of their foundation while they were in high school. In other words, “did they really have a strong faith before college?” Often, the answer is no. This is very uncomfortable to talk about but I believe that most teens don’t really know the Lord- which leads to the next point.
A lack of personal relationship with the Lord: simply growing up in a faith-based home is no longer enough. Unless the students knows the Lord personally, she/he will likely leave their faith while in college. Unless they know how to “be Christian” in an atmosphere that isn’t, their “spiritual resiliency” will be fragile.
An initial confrontation with intellectual challenge: if it’s hard for you to understand and articulate your faith, imagine what happens when you encounter a professor or fellow student who challenges you- it can rock a student’s world. They then feel inadequate and want to turn away. Their “apologetics muscle” isn’t strong enough to endure the challenges of most campuses. It’s not that the student doesn’t have faith. Rather, their faith vocabulary lags behind their belief.
If you are a student or a parent of a student approaching college, I suggest searching for the following five “signs” of spiritual vitality on a campus:
What is the Catholic vocabulary of the campus? From the college’s website to the promotional material, pay attention to how comfortable the college is about its Catholic identity. I receive packets all of the time from Catholic colleges and often, thankfully not always, the mention of Catholicism is but a footnote. Every word in a promotional brochure is labored over. The fact that a college would go out of its way to avoid its Catholicism should tell you something.
What is important for the college based on the tour? While I wouldn’t judge a campus entirely based on a 19 year old tour guide, each guide is coached to mention certain things and avoid others. Pay attention to this. Does the tour mention the chapel? Does the tour mention faith-related routines and rituals? Is D-1 football the real “religion” on campus? Are the blue safety lights mentioned more than anything else?
How updated is the campus ministry web page? Not every department in a college has full capacity to change its own webpages. This is unfortunately one of the consequences of red tape in higher education. Nonetheless, a campus ministry suite of pages does tell you how active the program is. Pay attention to this. It’s a good sign if the contact information is up to date and inviting to the guest.
How many students attend Mass regularly? Don’t ask about this because most will likely have but a vague answer. Rather, go to a daily or weekend Mass and just look around. Note that summer is not usually a fair time to judge as colleges are typically quieter in June and July.
How has the campus responded to recent moral challenges? Every college has its challenges- a scandal here, a discrepancy there. The key is how the college leadership responded to the challenge. When it involves morality, this is often an important marker of a college’s commitment to its core faith-based values. Was there a cover up? Was the college quick to respond? Was there a sense of pastoral concern and dialogue?
In future posts, I’ll be talking more about the college reality. For now, look for these five things as you begin to assess, in charity, the strength of a college’s faith foundation.