The Louisville Institute

The Louisville Institute
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Proposal Summary

Faith on Campus: Understanding the Religious Lives of U.S. College Students

Jonathan Hill

Calvin College


The research I propose will explore the religious lives of college students using survey and interview data from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) as well as supplemental interview data from students at targeted colleges and universities. The current state of literature on this subject is fragmented and difficult for religious leaders and congregations to transform into sets of effective practices. My primary goal, then, is to produce scholarship that accurately describes and assesses the religious lives of U.S. college students in a way that substantially furthers academic scholarship and provides an accessible resource for communities of faith. The end result will be a book and several articles that explore how college students conceptualize and practice their religious faith, as well as a thorough examination of how campus social and academic life constrains and enables expressions of religious faith among students. I will seek supplementary funding from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship to host a mini-conference with the goal of translating social science research on religion and higher education into congregational practices.


This project was designed to investigate how colleges and universities shape how students identify with various faith traditions. By conducting interviews with 110 students at ten different postsecondary institutions, this study sought to identify how the classroom and cocurricular environment shapes how students think about and express their faith. In addition to directly examining the religious lives of students, we attempted to understand how their religious identity helped or hindered them as they considered the meaning and purpose of their lives.

We came into this study with several expectations. While popular wisdom holds that colleges and universities undermine the faith development of emerging adults, we knew that recent research seriously challenges this supposition. These studies conclude that, overall, college is neither poison nor panacea for most (Uecker, Regnerus, &Vaaler, 2007; Hill, 2009, 2011; Mayrl&Uecker, 2011; Clydesdale, 2007). At the same time, research has demonstratedthat college students are less interested in pursuing the “big questions” of meaning and purpose in life as in the past (Astin et al 2002). But surely some students still use the college years to develop a life philosophy. Who are these students and why do they do this?

The existing research suggested to us the need to begin looking closer at different types of institutions and different types of students. Although we are not yet in the position to draw firm conclusions, we can note several themes that are emerging from our interviews:
• We were able to parse three primary types of meaning that emerged in our interviews with students: (1) individual achievement, (2) relational commitments, and (3) transcendent experience. Most discussions of life’s meaning with students involved one (or more) of these types.
• Students clearly emphasize the importance of the cocurricular experiences in shaping them personally. Classroom experiences did not typically leave a big impact on student religious or spiritual life.
• Evangelical students sometimes exhibit a “fatalism” about their future. Because the future was in God’s hands, the specifics did not need to be figured out.
• The non-religious primarily view religion as inhibiting an authentic search for meaning and purpose in life because religious traditions come with ready-made answers to life’s purpose.

Related Publications

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