Report highlights benefits to the spiritual and academic lives of youth
New research on Christian postsecondary schools in Canada points to favourable outcomes for those who attend them. About 60 per cent of such students connect with Christian campus groups compared to 28 per cent of students with a Christian upbringing who attend mainstream universities. And 83 per cent connect with a local church, compared to 35 per cent attending mainstream schools.
Students at Christian schools are also more likely to share their parents’ religious beliefs and hold more orthodox views. Only 10 per cent of those at Christian postsecondary schools who took a course on world religions developed a relativistic view of Christianity and religions, whereas the rate was 36 per cent among students with a Christian background at mainstream universities.
The new research, entitled Competence for Character Education: What Emerging Adulthood Means for Christian Higher Education in Canada, was recently published at www.RenegotiatingFaith.ca by a partnership of Christian organizations, a sequel to the recent influential report Renegotiating Faith: The Delay in Young Adult Identity Formation and What It Means for the Church in Canada.
Maureen Hickman is a 22-year-old theology student who attends a Christian university. She’s in fourth year at Calgary’s Ambrose University, which she chose because she intends to work in ministry.
She says she found something there beyond ministry training – a "broader Christian conversation. We don’t all come from the same background, so I get to see a bigger view of what it means to be a Christian. There’s always dialogue and encouragement from an academic side to go deeper – professors challenge us because they want us to be changed by this."
It’s very common for students at Christian postsecondary institutions to report high levels of satisfaction with campus life, not only for the obvious spiritual advantages, but also the availability of professors, academic quality and course variety.
The research also shows something intriguing about isolation. While both groups in the study used social media equally, students attending Christian institutions experienced less of a sense of isolation than students with a Christian upbringing who attended mainstream schools.
Melanie Humphreys, president of The King’s University in Edmonton, suspects it has something to do with class sizes. "Students like the fact that we know them all by name."
And yet in spite of their benefits, Christian postsecondary schools continue to be devalued in some Christian circles, particularly about academic quality and later employment options. It’s a shame, says Humphreys, because "So much good comes from the faith formation in these institutions. And it’s also untrue – King’s is known for its excellence and rigour in teaching and research. Graduates do well in the job market and in entering graduate programs. We know that a good number of our students get accepted into medical school."
Like many Christian universities across Canada, Ambrose University in Calgary provides accredited education in a rigorous academic environment.
Humphreys sees the report’s value in showing that Christian postsecondary is a good investment in the spiritual and academic lives of youth. "Students want a school with good academics, and they also want a university that speaks to what matters in today’s culture. But the word needs to get out, because right now Christian universities have a visibility problem."
Hickman agrees. As a student ambassador she fields questions from students and parents about validity and academic quality. "Parents are concerned with the job prospects for their kids and want an assurance they will eventually work, make money and have a good life. The assumption is that by coming here you give up real profs and real education."
That assumption is wrong, she says. "As long as the school is accredited, you’re getting the same quality … The big benefit is smaller classes and profs with time to spend on you."
To overcome the negative connotations and encourage more students to look seriously at Christian postsecondary schools, many leaders in the sector are in favour of developing incentives like scholarships funded by various denominations. "This education is critical in teaching young people to speak into the challenges of culture," Humphreys says.
The report will hopefully provoke deeper conversations about the state of young people’s religious beliefs, says John Stackhouse, professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. "It is crucial that pastors, teachers, and parents understand how rapidly both knowledge about and belief in God has evanesced in Canada in a single generation."
He’s concerned about how common it is at secular universities to find "explicit advocacy of non- or anti-Christian values … [and] the assumption of such values in regard to alcohol, ‘soft’ drugs, sex, cohabitation, cheating and plagiarism, academic competition, and social status that put constant pressure on young people to conform to an alternative ethic."
Christians today should be concerned, he says, to "buttress Christian faith against non- and even anti-Christian cultural forces in Canadian life." At mainstream campuses, that requires more proactive campus ministries to help students "function fruitfully as university citizens in preparation for broader citizenship when they graduate."
And that’s why, he says, Christian postsecondary schools are also necessary, now more than ever. The new research may lead more people to agree.
Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today.