Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandson Does Not Want To Attend Religious College

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Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

Our son Carl married Rachel, who, along with her parents and now Carl, are evangelical Christians. I should point out that my wife and I are not religious, something Carl and Rachel hold against us.

Here is where we could use your advice. Thomas, our 17-year-old grandson, who has only attended evangelical Christian schools, does want to go to college, but his parents have told him that they will pay for his college only if he goes to one of the colleges on their short list of evangelical colleges, recommended by friends, all of which are unaccredited. The problem is that Thomas does not want to go to one of these colleges, and here is why.

Throughout his life, all of Thomas’s friends have come from his religious community.

Then, a couple of years ago, Thomas started working as a volunteer at a meal center for the homeless. He became friendly with a group of kids his age who all go to a public school, also doing volunteer work at the center.

Being around these kids has helped Thomas realize that he has had a very sheltered upbringing. He told us these kids talk about a whole range of things that he wants to know more about, like music, movies, politics, science, and travel. He told his parents that he would rather forego college than go to one of the ones they selected. His parents have said he will do what they tell him to do. Things are tense between them, to say the least.

Thomas asked us if there is anything we can do.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

Rachel and Carl, like many parents who have stressed religion in family living, they worry that their children will stray from their religion when they go away to college. Their worry is warranted.

In a Scientific American article by Allen Downey, “College Freshmen Are Less Religious Than Ever,”

The number of college students with no religious affiliation has tripled in the last 30 years, from 10 percent in 1986 to 31 percent in 2016 … The fraction of “Nones” [respondent selects “None” for religious affiliation] is higher at universities, 36 percent, than at four-year colleges, 26 percent, mostly because more colleges than universities are religiously affiliated. Not surprisingly, religious colleges are more religious, with only 17 percent Nones … only seven percent of Nones return to religion.

It is understandable why Rachel and Carl are adamant about wanting Thomas to attend a religious college, and it is equally understandable that Thomas is eager for a college experience that goes beyond a strong focus on his religion.

I think there is lots of room between these two positions to explore some accommodation and compromise, but because you and your wife do not share Rachel’s and Carl’s views on religion, I do not think you are the best resources to take a lead role in these possible explorations.

For this reason I am going to suggest that the most productive role you can play is to find the “right person” who can facilitate a search for common ground between Thomas and his parents. I think the right person needs to be someone who is himself/herself adheres to religious principles in line with those of Rachel and Carl – this will put him/her in their comfort zone. Also, this person needs to be someone who understands Thomas’s desire to learn about more the world at large that Thomas is interested in – this will put him/her in Thomas’s comfort zone.

In short, this person needs to empathize with Rachel and Carl’s fear that their son will automatically abandon their religion if he doesn’t attend one of their approved colleges. At the same time, this person needs to empathize with Thomas’s need to spread his wings.

Seek Out an Educational Consultant

To assist you in finding such a resource, I suggest you seek out an educational consultant who can meet your basic criteria. Here are some websites that feature potential educational consultants.

  1. HECA: Higher Education Consultants Association
  2. IECA: Independent Educational Consultants Association
  3. Life Launchr: Your Virtual Coach For College Planning
  4. College Coach: Your College Admissions Experts

If you contact them and explain Thomas’s situation, and they provide you with some potential educational consultants, you will discern quickly whether he/she is right. If their initial response is that Thomas needs to obey his parents, you can easily rule them out. However, if they talk about understanding both Thomas’s needs and those of his parents, then this person may be an appropriate consultant.

If Thomas’s parents are unwilling to explore options regarding Thomas’s college options, then I point out that soon Thomas will turn 18 and will be officially and legally viewed as an adult in most states. At that point he can make decisions about colleges that do not involve his parents. For example, he may be willing to take on debt and/or look to you for financial help, e.g., co-sign on loans, contribute to tuition and expenses directly – something you said you are in a position to do.

I hope Carl and Rachel are able to see that you respect their views and concerns about Thomas’s college choices, but at the same time you understand Thomas’s position. In short, I hope they can appreciate your good intentions and that you’re just trying to help find some overlaps that can work for them and Thomas. However, I want to point out some possible fallout if you are involved in any way in this situation. That is, you need to be prepared to have a strained, if not estranged, relationship with Rachel and Carl.

A final comment: Perhaps Rachel and Carl can be positively influenced by the comments of Greg Jao, a longtime national staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship:

… going away to school may also help faith grow, as students leave behind the churches of their childhood and begin making decisions about faith on their own. “By leaving and going to college,” he [Jao] said, “they have to decide, ‘Do I still believe this and how will I continue to engage in this faith?’”

They can also learn how to apply their faith out in the world, and develop habits to sustain that faith when it conflicts with cultural values.


Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Its All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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