“Unsettling” Research on Christian Students


A major study was undertaken recently through the partnership of the Association of Biblical Higher Education and the Barna Group, and the results were just released this year. Bethlehem College & Seminary is accredited through ABHE, so I took a keen interest in these results. Here’s a catchy preview to a sampling of the findings:

Do Christians hold different aspirations and hopes for college compared to the general population? The answers may surprise you.

The top reason to go to college for 69% of the general population was to “prepare for a specific job or career.” The second reason, given by 55%, was to “increase financial opportunities.” Number 3? “Stay competitive in today’s job market.”

The reason most American’s go to college is to get a better job and make more money.

What about things like, “encourage spiritual growth,” “develop moral character,” or even, “make a difference in the world”? Those reasons were at the bottom of the list.

Here’s what the researchers found surprising and even a bit scandalous:

After seeing the general population data, one might expect Christians to have a different set of priorities—but that’s not the case. In fact, self-identified Christians are just as likely, and in some cases more likely, to hold the “college-is-about-career” perspective.

The researchers found this to be “unsettling.” Doesn’t the Bible contain numerous warnings about “seeking after wealth”? Shouldn’t Christian students care about spiritual things and not just jobs?

To be honest, I don’t find this surprising or unsettling at all, and here are two big reasons: the cost of college tuition, and the disjunction between the university and the local church.

1. The cost of college tuition has fundamentally changed the way we view education.

Our local newspaper recently published an article titled “Sticker Shock.” The average cost for room, board, and tuition at a private college in Minnesota is $50,000 per year. It seems to me that a $200,000 college degree is an awfully expensive way to “encourage spiritual growth” or “develop moral character.” In fact, moral character includes the discipline of stewardship and spending nearly a quarter of million dollars to “encourage spiritual growth” is not just poor stewardship but just plain foolish. It was Jesus himself who pointed out that sometimes “the sons of this world are more shrewd in their dealing than the the sons of light” (Luke 16:8).

That’s not unsettling—it makes perfect sense to me. If you’re going to spend that much money for a college education, you need to think hard about where that money is going to come from. It might actually be a form of gnosticism that prizes a form of inner personal development—no matter how spiritual—that also leaves you broke, in crippling debt, and a material burden to those around you.

What I find more unsettling than the financial considerations of Christian students is the financial considerations of the Christian colleges seeking to attract them. Which leads me to my second point.

2. Should we even be looking to Christian colleges (and paying them handsomely) as our primary means to “encourage spiritual growth”?

On my reading of the New Testament, that seems to be the role of the local church. Pastors are given the responsibility of “keeping watch over your souls” (Heb 13:17). It’s the body of Christ, which is the church (1 Corinthians 12:27–28) that Christ has equipped to build itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). The church is God’s blueprint for spiritual maturity in community, and you won’t even need to take out a loan to participate.

On one level, though, I agree with the researchers. The first few years outside of your parents’ home will be the most crucial years of your life. You will be discipled by those you are around: professors, classmates, and roommates. Your character will be shaped and molded in profound ways. The trajectory of the rest of your life is taking shape, including what sort of vocation you choose.

* * * * *

What if there was a Christian college that was thoroughly integrated into the life of a local church? What if that college did, in fact, place an emphasis on developing moral character, encouraging Christian growth, and yes, even “discovering who you are”—in Christ? What if this college did the hard work of raising funds so that the cost of the education became shockingly affordable? What if an affordable liberal arts degree did, in fact, prepare you well for a vocation in any discipline you can imagine: teaching, business, engineering, technology, or ministry? What if there was a way to blend vocation and formation?

At Bethlehem College & Seminary that’s exactly what we aim to do. We fully believe in the value of a Christian liberal arts education, and we’ve done everything possible to make it a realistic option for wise and discerning students.

We feel pretty settled about that.