With some 2.5 million freshmen entering American colleges each year, a new UCLA survey reports that the great majority of them are “spiritually hungry” and “in a serious search for deeper meaning in their lives.”
The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), an ongoing UCLA project, has released the results of a survey of 112,232 freshmen in 236 colleges nationwide. HERI reported that 76% of the freshmen were “still searching for the purpose or meaning behind their lives,” with the great majority saying they were “hungry to learn more about God.”
What do these numbers mean?
A Comeback on Campus?
In Fall 2001 in its Liberal Education newsletter, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) published an article that anticipated the HERI findings. The 2001 piece claimed, “Students arrived on campus spiritually hungry, looking for ways to deepen and express their religious commitments” — this after a period during the 1980s when “commentators had all but written off religion in the academy.”
But as the 1990s drew to a close, student religious organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ nearly doubled their membership; philanthropists pumped millions of dollars into campus-based religious activities; and the “faith vote” became a factor in national elections. Naturally, interest in religious matters rose among college students. It was all part of “the public resurgence of the sacred,” the AAC&U article said.
But it was not in all respects a resurgence of Christianity on campus. The same period saw the creation of “multifaith chapels,” the founding of “humanist chaplaincies,” and conferences on “religious diversity,” featuring such distractions as “classical Indian dance, Tibetan Buddhism, and the spirituality of jazz” — all part of an “upsurge of spirituality on campus.” The article concluded that by 2001 “religious pluralism” had become a “challenge” and “an occasion for identity-politics skirmishes” throughout the academic community (for instance, pitting evangelical Christians against homosexual militants).
Many of Chalcedon’s readers will be familiar with the findings of the Barna Group, the nation’s leading demographics research and polling organization. Barna has consistently maintained that most Americans’ religious preferences are set years before they’re old enough to go to college. How does this square with HERI’s finding of a spiritual hunger among college freshmen?
Barna says that “in most cases, people’s spiritual beliefs are irrevocably formed when they are pre-teens.” The “born again population” of the country, Barna says, represents “38% of all adults and one-third of all teenagers.”
Given that some of those born again teens do not attend the colleges surveyed by HERI or didn’t take part in the survey, the 76% of freshmen “still searching” would not include many of the born agains. That 76% would mostly represent the two-thirds of American teens who are not born again Christians.
Souls at Risk
Philosophy Professor James McGregor, who has taught at Salem State College in Massachusetts for 38 years (now teaching medical and business ethics), endorsed HERI’s findings.
“I’ve seen it in the classroom,” he said. “These kids are searching, all right. But today’s academic environment is not a good place for the soul.
“Many of these kids, because they haven’t been taught, can’t even frame the questions, religiously or philosophically. At the same time, a lot of these schools, and much of the faculty, have gone off the deep end into spiritualism, atheism, and gay and feminist politics. The doubt they create in the minds of the students is a problem unto itself.”
To illustrate, he pointed to a report by the North Texas Skeptics, an atheist organization. The Skeptics focused on a Philosophy of Religion course created at Texas A&M in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America. Enrollment in the course has been at full capacity every semester since 2001.
Although some students interviewed said the course led them to become more committed to Christianity, most said it encouraged them to embrace either atheism or “alternative religions” such as Buddhism or New Age beliefs.
“College has become a field of land mines for the soul,” said Sam Kastensmidt, of Coral Ridge Ministries’ Reclaiming America project (www.reclaimamerica.org).
Kastensmidt, now 26, recalled his freshman course in “Religion and the New Testament” at the University of Florida.
“Our professor was vehemently atheistic, and he tried to bring that to his class. But that’s not unusual. Many surveys show that religious studies faculty are among the most left-leaning groups on campus,” Kastensmidt said.
What to Do?
Taking into account young people’s spiritual hunger and the strong possibility that college will misdirect it, what can Christian parents do to help their children remain Christian through four years of college?
Start religious training early, Barna says. Neither church nor family alone has the resources to build a strong religious foundation for a child. Family and church must work together.
“Religion has to be discussed at home, at church, in school — everywhere,” Kastensmidt said. “In recent years, there’s been a total void in America when it comes to faith in daily life and talking about it. Both political parties act like they’re allergic to it. That leaves it up to the church and to the parents.”
Some families may be able to enroll their teenagers in faith-affirming activities. The West-Coast Christian Worldview Conference (http://wcwc.ws), for example, will hold an intensive “religious boot camp” for young people, July 25–30, at Bethany College, Scotts Valley, California. The conference features lectures and discussion groups led by noted Christian teachers, including R.C. Sproul Jr., Joseph Morecraft III, and Mark Rushdoony.
Worldview Weekend (www.worldviewweekend.com) holds similar sessions at various locations nationwide and also offers a three-month online course aimed at inculcating a Christian worldview (“Developing a Biblical Worldview”). The organization’s website offers a free online worldview test.
Worldview Academy (www.worldview.org) holds 14 summer “leadership camps” nationwide for Christian teens.
Thanks to the HERI study, and others, Christian families preparing for college have been forewarned. Now it’s up to them to be forearmed.
 U.S. Dept. of Education statistic, www.ed.gov.
 “College Freshmen Hungry for Faith,” http://www.reclaimamerica.org/Pages/News/newspage.asp?story=2591.
 “Religion: A Comeback on Campus,” http://www.aacu.org/liberaleducation/le-fa01/le-fa01feature.cfm.
 “Research Shows That Spiritual Maturity Process Should Start at a Young Age,” http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=153.
 Barna, “Research Shows.”
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.