What affects students’ views more, their gender or the type of college they attend (that is, Christian or secular)? Thomas Knecht and Emily Ecklund argue that women at Christian colleges generally have more in common with women at secular colleges than they do with men at their own schools. Nevertheless, students at Christian colleges part ways with their peers at secular colleges on a number of issues, including matters of spirituality and politics. The authors also find that most of these institutional differences come from the type of students that Christian colleges admit rather than the education they provide. Mr. Knecht is Associate Professor of Political Science and Ms. Ecklund is a former Westmont student who is currently a strategy and organization consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton.
Despite numerous studies on the attitudes and opinions of college students, we still know relatively little about the interplay of gender and the type of college students attend (such as Christian or secular). Do men and women at Christian colleges think differently than their peers at secular schools? Do women at Christian colleges have more in common with men at their own schools or with women at non-sectarian colleges? Are differences between Christian and secular student bodies the result of the admissions process or the educational process? How do students’ worldviews and self-perceptions change from their first year to their senior year?
We explore these questions by comparing the opinions and self-assessments of four groups of students – women at Christian colleges, women at secular colleges, men at Christian colleges, and men at secular colleges – upon entering and leaving college. This longitudinal design is uniquely suited both to untangling the relationship between gender and college type and to identifying possible causes of group differences.
Several interesting findings emerge from this analysis. Perhaps the most important is that gender has a greater influence on opinion than the type of college students attend. The gender gap is especially evident in matters of self-perception, as women are more likely to feel depressed, have less self-confidence, and report lower levels of emotional health than do college men. Nevertheless, a number of issues separate Christian and secular student bodies. Students at Christian colleges are typically more conservative, less materialistic, and more interested in spiritual matters than are their peers at secular colleges. Surprisingly, however, there is little evidence in this data that Christian colleges provide their students with a different college experience than do secular colleges. Indeed, most of the uniqueness of Christian colleges seems to come from their admission process, not their educational process.
These findings raise several questions. Why do college women differ so greatly from college men in their goals, self-perceptions, and worldviews? Should we be concerned about this gender gap? If so, how can we better empower college women? Why do the opinion trend-lines of students attending Christian colleges look so similar to those of students at secular colleges? Should we be concerned about these similarities? Although we do not claim to have the final answer on any of these questions, we hope this paper sparks a broader conversation about the interplay of gender and religion at college.
Our research sits at the intersection of vast literatures on gender, religion, and higher education. As such, we need to explore three foundational questions before addressing our own. First, are there gender differences in higher education? If women and men share essentially the same college experience, then there is little reason to investigate the matter any further. As we will see, however, a large literature shows that gender matters inside the Ivory Tower. Second, does Christianity shape gendered views of self and the world? Again, if gender has a similar influence on both Christians and non-Christians, then it makes no sense to explore how a gendered dynamic plays out differently at Christian and secular colleges. However, a large literature shows that evangelical Christians do think differently about gender; an even larger literature explores whether they should think differently about gender. Finally, what role does religion play in college life? There are two dimensions to this question: the first examines religion’s effect on individual students; the second explores the differences between sectarian and non-sectarian colleges. Although we briefly review the first dimension, we are more interested in the second. That is, we are interested in the extent to which Christian colleges provide students with curricular and co-curricular experiences not found at secular colleges.
The following briefly explores the literature on these three foundational questions before taking a closer look at the point where they intersect.
Gender Differences in Higher Education. In general, women have a different college experience than men. An important discussion has spawned from Roberta Hall and Bernice Sandler’s (1982) article describing the “chilly climate” that women experience at college. Factors contributing to this climate range from gender role stereotyping and biases1 to sexual objectification and harassment.2 Despite impressive educational gains in recent years, college women remain underrepresented in certain majors.3 Moreover, college men tend to have more ambitious career goals and have a more developed conception of their future selves in the workplace.4
Of course, college women are not a homogenous group when it comes to self-perception or worldviews. For instance, Alyssa Bryant found that students who mainly associated with others in a Christian group were more likely to be gender traditionalists.5 Maureen McHale discovered that majors, peer group, extracurricular activities, and professor interaction have a strong effect on students’ perception of gender.6 Likewise, diverse environments, women’s studies courses, and certain academic disciplines decrease the likelihood that men and women hold traditional gendered views.7 Laurie Schreiner and Young Kim also found that students at Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) schools “were considerably less likely to participate in a diverse curriculum, such as taking ethnic or women’s studies courses” than the national average.8
In short, gender matters at college. Although there are important intra-gender distinctions to be made, college women, in general, hold different views and have different experiences than college men. Our research seeks to understand just how important these gender differences are when compared to the influence of religion.
Gender Differences and Christianity
The suggestion that women at Christian colleges hold different opinions than their secular counterparts carries with it the implicit assumption that evangelical Christians, as a group, think differently about gender than do non-evangelicals. Scholars have documented two main approaches to gender within the evangelical tradition. One school of evangelical thought holds rather conservative views on gender.9 This tradition believes that God created men and women differently and assigned them distinct roles in the household, society, and church.10 By contrast, progressive evangelicals argue that the Bible commands gender equality.11 In this view, women can serve as pastors and gender roles are blurred, in both the home and in the workplace.12 Although evangelicals are not, on average, gender traditionalists, they are more likely to hold traditional views than non-evangelicals.13 To the extent that Christian colleges mirror the broader church, there is reason to expect that their students may think differently about gender than do their counterparts at secular schools.
Religion in Higher Education
Scholars have documented the positive influence that religion can have on college students. For instance, religious students are more involved in campus leadership,14 more active in extracurricular activities,15 and more likely to volunteer and do social work.16 Religion has a positive influence on students’ interpersonal communications, social engagement, and academic self-confidence.17 Religious students receive more satisfaction from their work,18 experience more growth and development,19 interact better with other cultures,20 and are more satisfied with their college experience than are their secular counterparts.21 They also demonstrate lower rates of risky behavior, such as alcohol and drug abuse,22 and tend to make ethical decisions.23 Finally, religion seems to increase students’ emotional well-being24 and lessen feelings of depression and loneliness.25
Not all scholars see religion as a positive force in students’ lives, however. Some argue that religion limits educational attainment26 and that evangelical students, because of their commitment to the authenticity of Scripture, are cognitively inflexible.27 Others contend that conservative Christian students tend to be more prejudiced and less tolerant than their secular counterparts.28 As we discuss below, some scholars also contend that religion on college campuses is especially detrimental for women.29
The preceding literature takes an individual-level approach to examining the role of religion on students’ lives, with much of the scholarship focusing on Christian students enrolled in secular colleges; a smaller but related literature focuses on differences between sectarian and non-sectarian colleges. Again, some of this research casts Christian colleges in a positive light, some in a negative light. On the positive side, there is evidence that students at Christian colleges are more likely to aspire toward a masters or doctoral degree, spend more hours studying, and interact more often with professors in social environments.30 Moreover, female Christian college students demonstrated the greatest increase in self-understanding over the course of four years, which led to a substantial shift in their career goals toward graduate degrees. As one might imagine, Christian colleges are also more interested in nurturing students’ spiritual development and in shaping values and character than secular colleges.31
However, not all scholars view Christian colleges in such a positive light. For instance, Darren Sherkat argues that Christian colleges are inferior to secular colleges because their professors, overburdened with teaching, do not conduct meaningful research and therefore leave their students unprepared for graduate school:
Faculty members at small religious colleges tend to teach heavy loads of diverse courses, and sectarian colleges are only able to sustain a handful of majors and programs. Most of these programs are not suited to providing the type of training needed for preparation for graduate study. Engineering and hard science programs are especially difficult to sustain at small colleges. Further, religious schools are generally viewed as inferior in quality,32 whether or not they truly are. Low prestige combines with limited options for majors to produce less valuable degrees and fewer options for advanced study or highly compensated employment.33
In sum, the diversity of scholarly viewpoints makes it challenging to determine whether religion has a positive or negative effect on students. An attempt to summarize this literature in a phrase or two is difficult, but Damon Mayrl and Freeden Oeur perhaps put it best when they wrote, “religion’s effect on student outcomes is probably best described as mildly but inconsistently positive.”34
The Intersection of Gender, Religion, and College
Thus far, the literature tell us that a) gender matters at college, b) there are differences in the way Christians and non-Christians view gender and the world, and c) religion affects college life. We, of course, are especially interested in what happens at the point where these factors intersect. Scholarship within this narrower focus suggests that, on balance, religion has a negative effect on college women. For instance, studies have found biases against women faculty at Christian institutions and a gender disparity in senior-level leadership among CCCU institutions.35 Through her numerous studies, Alyssa Bryant has focused on gender differences both across institutions and within Christian college campuses.36 Bryant finds, in general, that Christian colleges reinforce traditional gender norms in ways that negatively affect women’s life goals and career choices.37 Darren Sherkat also notes that adherence to traditional gender norms makes it less likely that Christian women will even seek a college education.38 Although scholars identify some positive trends – Christian women seem to be more spiritual than other groups39 – the balance of the literature suggests that the intersection of gender, religion, and college is a dangerous place for women.
This article seeks to add to the literature in two ways. First, we compare the relative influence of gender and college type on student opinion. The literature tells us that both gender and religion profoundly shape students’ views; our analysis seeks to identify which factor has the greater influence. Second, we seek to uncover possible causes behind group differences. We ask, for example, whether self-selection (that is, the admissions process) or education explains differences between students at Christian and secular colleges. The longitudinal design of our study makes it possible to sort out, at least partially, the complex relationship that exists between gender, religion, and student development. The next section explores the possible ways this dynamic can play out over four years of college.
Our research compares the opinions and self-perception of four groups of students: women at Christian colleges, women at secular colleges, men at Christian colleges, and men at secular colleges. As a conceptual framework, consider a continuum of student opinion (Figure 1). Anchored at one pole is what we call “institutional effects,” where men and women at Christian colleges hold views similar to each other, but distinct from their counterparts at secular colleges. If student opinion is on the institutional effects side of the continuum, then there is reason to expect that something unique sets Christian colleges apart from secular colleges. At the other end of the continuum are “gendered effects,” where college women (men) hold opinions distinct from college men (women), regardless of the type of institution they attend. Opinion closer to this end of the continuum suggests that it is gender, rather than the type of college students attend, that shapes opinions and self-perceptions. The center of this continuum shows no relationship between gender and institutional type, which means that all four student groups share essentially the same opinion.
Although this continuum offers a way to categorize student opinion, it cannot identify the causal mechanisms that can produce either institutional or gender effects. To begin to explore why these differences emerge, we need to look at the evolution of student opinion from their first to final year in college. Comparing the trend-lines of our four student groups can tell us, say, whether institutional differences are the result of Christian colleges offering a unique educational experience or whether Christian colleges simply admit a unique collection of students. It can also tell us whether college is a time when the views of women become more or less like the views of men. In short, comparing student trend-lines gives us a partial insight into why students groups think differently.
Theoretically, there are four possible trend-lines that can emerge as our student groups progress from first-years to college seniors. The first possibility is that the opinion gap seen in first-year students – whether institutional or gendered – remains roughly the same size by graduation. Although student views are likely to change after four years of college, in this scenario all groups change their minds in a similar fashion. If we see institutional effects coupled with a consistent opinion gap, then it suggests the uniqueness of Christian colleges comes mainly from self-selection: Christian colleges simply attract a different type of graduating high school senior (for example, those more interested in spiritual development, more conservative, and so on) than do secular colleges. Moreover, consistency in the institutional gap suggests that Christian colleges do not offer a radically different student experience than that offered by non-sectarian colleges; if they did, the trend-lines would look quite different. For gender effects, a consistent opinion gap suggests that differences in women and men’s opinions are a product of factors exogenous to and relatively unaffected by college. This gender gap could stem from biology and/or socialization. Whatever its cause, the initial gap between women and men reflects gender differences that manifest before students reach college. A consistent trend-line then tells us that college does little to widen or narrow the initial differences we see in first-year women and men.
A second possibility is that the gender or institutional opinion gap evident in first-year students widens by senior year. Given the mission of Christian colleges, we should expect to see divergent institutional effects on a number of questions, such as the importance of spiritual matters. Indeed, the entire reason for Christian colleges is to provide an educational and co-curricular experience that students do not get in the secular academy. Divergent trend-lines coupled with a gender gap indicate that women and men grow further apart by their senior year in college. The gender gap could widen for any number of reasons: college might prime students to view the world through a gendered lens or the “chilly climate” on college campuses may adversely affect women’s self-perception. In sum, divergent trend-lines suggest that the college experience widens the initial differences we see among first-year students.
The third possibility is that the views of our student groups converge by their senior year. For institutional effects, this means that students at Christian colleges increasingly resemble students at secular colleges (or vice versa). A number of factors could lead to this type of convergence. One possibility is that some Christian colleges expose students to unfamiliar academic topics (such as Marxism or feminism) and/or teach a more progressive theology than students are accustomed to. Indeed, some Christian colleges might appear especially progressive to students who attended a conservative Christian high school or were homeschooled. For gender effects, convergence means that women and men become more similar by their senior year. Again, a number of factors can conceivably produce gender convergence. One possibility is that college is an especially liberating time for women, which narrows the opinion gap with men. Alternatively, college might have a greater effect on men’s opinions by teaching them to become more cognizant of and sensitive to gender issues. In short, convergence suggests that the college experience erodes the group differences seen in first-year students.
A final possibility is that we see “interaction effects” among our four groups of students. It may be the case, for instance, that some questions yield institutional effects in the students’ first year, but gender effects by senior year. It is also possible that one group of students bucks the trend-lines set by other groups. As we will see, for example, every student group expressed a lower drive to achieve by their senior year, except for men at Christian colleges, who became more ambitious. Interaction effects can manifest in many different ways, each suggesting an interesting dynamic between gender and college type.
In sum, a number of theoretical possibilities branch from the intersection of gender and college type. Comparing our four groups of students, we may find that women at Christian and secular colleges hold similar opinions (that is, gender effects), or we may find that women and men at Christian colleges have a lot in common (that is, institutional effects). Tracing the movement of opinion from matriculation to graduation gives us some ability to isolate the causes of these differences. If the opinion gap remains roughly the same size from students’ first to fourth year in college, then it suggests that group differences are products of factors that manifest before students ever arrive on campus. If, however, opinion converges or diverges by graduation, then it suggests that the college experience is formative. Although identifying the precise causal mechanisms at play is beyond the scope of this project, the evidence provided here can narrow the range of possibilities.
We explore questions of gender, religion, and college through the Higher Education Research Institute’s (HERI) 2002 Freshman Survey (CIRP) and the 2006 College Senior Survey (CSS).40 This longitudinal dataset includes only those students of four-year colleges who answered both surveys (N = 12,606). Of the students who completed both surveys, 6,627 are from non-sectarian schools and 3,201 are from Christian schools; more women (65 percent) responded to the survey than men (35 percent). Each survey asked students a variety of questions that we classified into three categories: future goals, self-perception, and worldviews (see Appendix A for question wording and response categories).
The HERI data is susceptible to validity threats common to all large-N surveys, including panel attrition, response bias, and social desirability effects. That said, we wish to highlight three particular threats and discuss how they might affect our results. First, our analysis looks at a subset of questions (22 questions) drawn from the full CIRP and CSS surveys. We selected these questions because they seemed especially pertinent to how students viewed themselves, their future, and the world. Of course, it is possible that the questions we chose are somehow outliers and that selecting other questions, or phrasing these questions differently, could produce different results. Second, a number of the HERI questions, especially related to self-perception, ask students to rate themselves relative to peers their age. For example, students were asked to rate their academic ability “as compared with the average person your age” on a scale ranging from 1 (lowest 10 percent) to 5 (highest 10 percent). We might expect that students’ perspectives of “average” differs between, say, Harvard University and Walla Walla Clown College. In short, relative rankings may yield different results than would absolute rankings, a point we discuss in greater depth in the results and discussion sections.
Finally, our research relies on HERI’s designation of colleges as either “non-religious” or “other religious” (a list of “other religious” schools in the analysis is found in Appendix B). The religious institutions in the analysis are all schools from the Protestant tradition.41 We exclude Catholic schools from the analysis because some studies show that student experiences at these schools tend to be different from those attending Protestant colleges.42 We recognize that this simple dichotomous designation can obscure important distinctions that potentially affect student views (such as the region where the college is located, whether the institution is a small liberal arts college or large research university, and whether the religious college affiliates with a conservative or liberal denomination). However, including additional variables to disaggregate the type of college would further complicate an already-complex analysis that involves multiple groups and a time component. As such, we leave these finer-grained distinctions to future research.
It is also important to note our use of the terms “Christian” or “secular” refers to the mission of the college, not to students’ personal faith. We recognize, of course, that many Christian students attend secular colleges and that some secular students attend Christian colleges. Nevertheless, we make this simple distinction for a several reasons. First, we are primarily interested in whether Christian colleges are different from secular colleges, not whether Christian students are different from non-Christian students. This focuses the analysis on the claim that Christian colleges provide a unique educational experience to students. Second, focusing exclusively on the type of institution bypasses rather tricky questions concerning how to measure or classify an individual’s faith. Finally, a number of studies compare Christian and non-Christian students, but relatively few compare Christian and non-sectarian schools.43 Our research helps fill this gap.
We use two types of statistical tests to evaluate the views of our four groups of students. First, paired sample t-tests examine whether institutional or gendered effects were significant. We generally do not report these results because all the effects we describe in the analysis were significant (complete results are available from the authors upon request). Second, we used ANOVA tests (analysis of variance) to examine whether the first- to fourth-year trend-lines of our student groups converged, diverged, or remained consistent over time (Figures 2-10 examine these trend-lines). To simplify the analysis, we aggregated groups based on effects. For example, if a particular question yielded institutional effects, we then combined men and women at Christian colleges and compared their trend-line to that of men and women at secular colleges. The results of the ANOVA then tell us whether the views of students at Christian colleges converged, diverged, or remained similar to views of students at secular colleges by their senior year. Although the ANOVAs make this binary comparison (for example, college women vs. college men; students at Christian colleges vs. students at secular colleges), Figures 2-10 include the trend-lines for each of our four student groups.
Several interesting patterns emerge as we trace the opinions and self-perceptions of our four groups of students – women at Christian colleges, women at secular colleges, men at Christian colleges, and men at secular colleges – from their first to final year in college. First, the group that arrived at college with the highest mean generally left with the highest mean. For instance, Table 1 reports the mean score for each group in their first and fourth years and shows that women enter Christian colleges as the group most interested in helping others (mean of 3.03), and leave college still being the most altruistic group (mean of 3.21). This does not mean, however, that college has little effect on students’ views. Indeed, a second conclusion is that college is a time of remarkable individual change and attitudinal instability, described by scholars as the “impressionable years.”44 Table 2 examines the mean change of students from their first to fourth year in college and reports the results of a t-test for statistical significance. Students, regardless of gender or type of institution, experienced a significant change between their first and fourth years on over 80 percent of the questions in the analysis. While the results paint a broad picture of transformation, some groups changed more than others. For example, women at Christian colleges grew significantly in their desire to be an authority in their field (.12 mean change), while men at secular schools did not change at all. We can get a better idea of which group changed the most by adding the absolute mean change for each question in the analysis for each group. The results show that men at Christian colleges changed the most from their first to fourth year in college (absolute mean change of 3.04), followed by women at Christian colleges (2.71 mean change), with women and men at secular schools exhibiting a similar-sized change (a 2.51 and 2.52 mean change respectively).
The preceding sets the stage to consider our two main research questions: 1) what affects students’ views more, their gender or the type of college they attend? and 2) do the opinions of students converge, diverge, or remain the same over the course of their college education? The following broadly summarizes our answers to these questions before taking a closer look at institutional, gender, and interaction effects.
Perhaps the most important conclusion drawn from the results is that gender effects are far more prevalent than institutional or interaction effects. Table 3 takes the results from Table 1 and lists whether student responses to each question produce institutional, gender, or interaction effects. It also reports the results of the ANOVA tests to determine if group opinions significantly converged, diverged, or remained the same. Out of the twenty-two questions in the analysis, gender effects are evident 64 percent of the time, institutional effects 27 percent, and interaction effects are apparent in only 9 percent of the questions. Gender effects are especially prevalent in the self-perception category, as men are generally less depressed, more confident, and report greater feelings of efficacy and better emotional health than women. These results suggest that gender has a greater influence on students’ views than the type of college they attend.
The second question – do the views of students converge, diverge, or remain the same from their first to fourth year in college? – attempts to uncover the factors behind the differences in opinion. A longitudinal analysis is essential in fleshing out whether opinion gaps are the product of factors that manifest before or after students arrive at college. Perhaps the most striking finding is that the opinion gap in students’ first year usually does not change much by their fourth year. Indeed, a consistent opinion gap (either institutional or gender) exists for 59 percent of the questions in the analysis. Remember that a consistently-sized opinion gap means that students may change their views by senior year, but each group shifts in the same direction and in roughly the same magnitude. Therefore, consistent opinion gaps suggest that differences in student groups – either institutional or gendered – have little to do with their college education. For example, high school seniors who are more conservative are more likely to attend Christian colleges; Christian colleges do not then make these students any more or less conservative compared to peers at secular colleges. Likewise, women tend to be more depressed than men when they first arrive on campus; college does not then make women any more or less depressed than men. These results suggest that differences in our four groups of students are the product of factors largely exogenous to the college experience. As we discuss below, this finding has several implications – not least of which is that the uniqueness of Christian colleges stems more from the type of students they admit and less from the education they provide.
These two findings – the prevalence of gender effects and the relative consistency of the opinion gap – provide a broad overview of the intersection of gender, college, and student development. The following offers a closer look inside institutional, gender, and interaction effects.
Institutional Effects. The institutional effects described in Table 3 are consistent with what one might expect from Christian colleges.45 For instance, students at Christian colleges, both men and women, tend to be less materialistic, more interested in family life, more spiritual, and more politically conservative than their peers at secular colleges. However, self-selection, not education, appears to explain most of these differences. For example, Figure 2 shows that men and women at Christian colleges attach more importance to being financially well-off in their first year (means of 2.70 and 2.51, respectively) than in their senior year (means of 2.45 and 2.39). Yet, the importance of being financially well-off also declines for students at secular colleges at roughly the same rate. This suggests that Christian colleges do not uniquely shape their students’ views of wealth – after all, students at secular colleges experience a similar change. Instead, high school students who are less interested in being financially well-off are more likely to attend a Christian college (that is, self-selection), and this initial gap between peers attending secular colleges stays roughly the same size by the time both groups are seniors.
There are two cases of institutional effects where students at Christian colleges converged with students at secular colleges: raising a family and spirituality. When it comes to the importance of raising a family, Figure 3 shows that convergence is due to the dramatic change of women at secular colleges who were much less interested in raising a family their first year (mean = 3.07) than their senior year (mean = 3.17).
A second, and perhaps more interesting, question asks students to rate their spirituality “compared with the average person your age.” Figure 4 shows that all groups ranked their spirituality lower by their senior year, with the sharpest decline coming from students at Christian colleges (-.14 mean change for women, -.10 mean change for men). Although students at Christian colleges gave themselves a much higher absolute spirituality rating than did their counterparts at secular colleges, they nevertheless experienced a greater relative decline that ultimately produced a convergent trend. There are a number of ways to interpret this finding, but consider here two possibilities. First, convergence could simply be a methodological artifact. Presumably, a number of very spiritual students attend Christian colleges, which can then affect students’ relative self-assessment. It is possible that a student may not experience any real decline in their spirituality over four years of college, yet, at the same time, sense that they do not quite measure up to the other “spiritual heavyweights” on campus. Convergence, therefore, may be more a product of question wording and less a substantive finding. A second possible interpretation is that the spiritual decline of students at Christian colleges is real and troubling. The raison d’être for Christian colleges is to nurture spiritual development. We should therefore expect to see growing divergence over four years as Christian colleges focus on the spiritual lives of their students, or, at the very least, retard their students’ spiritual decline relative to students at secular colleges. The fact that we see convergence, not divergence, on the issue of spirituality thus raises troubling questions regarding how well Christian colleges are fulfilling their mandate.
A related point is that institutional effects are notable for what is absent: evidence of divergent trends. If Christian colleges do indeed provide a unique educational experience, then we should expect to see significantly different trend-lines on many of the questions in the analysis. In no case, however, do we see divergence. Again, this suggests that Christian colleges do not provide students with a radically different experience than do secular colleges – at least not in a way that shows up in this analysis (a point taken up in greater depth in the Discussion section).
Another implication of a lack of divergence is that it challenges stereotypes that many people have about Christian colleges. One view of Christian colleges is that they are bastions of conservatism and gender traditionalism. Accordingly, this view assumes the institutional divide widens from matriculation to graduation as Christian colleges teach and socialize students into a more conservative worldview. Yet, again, we do not see any evidence of this. Table 2, for example, shows a significant across-the-board decrease in the percentage of students saying that a woman’s place is in the home, with the greatest drop coming from men (-.23) and women (-.19) at Christian colleges. Moreover, students at Christian colleges tend to become more politically liberal (a .13 mean change for women; a .15 mean change for men) and more supportive of legal abortion (a .32 mean change for women; a .29 mean change for men) by their senior year. This evidence suggests that Christian colleges are not teaching students to become – or, at least, are doing an extraordinarily poor job of teaching students to become – gender traditionalists and political conservatives.
Gender Effects. As mentioned earlier, gender effects are far more prevalent than institutional or interaction effects. Within the gender effects category, it is most often the case that the gap between women and men is similarly sized in both their first and fourth years of college. This is especially true of questions in the self-perception category, such as emotional health, depression, and self-confidence. Figure 5, for example, shows that women rated their emotional health much lower than men in both their first and final years of college. Because this gap neither grows nor shrinks, it suggests that most gender differences are a product of phenomenon that manifest before students arrive at college. This could include different socialization processes and/or biological differences, but, whatever their cause, college does little to widen or narrow the initial gender gap.
Three questions produced a divergence between women and men over the course of their college education: tolerance for objectionable speech, feelings of efficacy, and leadership ability. For the sake of illustration, we will set aside tolerance and focus on efficacy46 and leadership. Figure 6 shows that although women feel more efficacious in their senior year than in their first year, the gains made by men are even greater, which serves to widen the initial gender gap. Perhaps more troubling for those interested in gender equity is leadership. Figure 7 shows college men becoming much more confident in their leadership ability by their senior year while women experience no significant growth. If colleges train future leaders, and if confidence in leadership ability matters, then we should expect continued gender inequity at the top of the hierarchy.
Finally, in only one question did college women converge with college men. When it came to feeling overwhelmed, there was an ever-so-slight, but statistically significant, convergence of men and women. In no other question do we see women making up ground on men.
Interaction Effects. Because we are dealing with the intersection of gender and college type over time, there exists the possibility of interaction effects. Three such effects are evident in our results. First, an interesting interaction occurs concerning whether students want to be an authority in their field. Figure 8 shows that, as first-years, men at secular schools are the most ambitious group (mean = 2.75), women at Christian colleges the least (mean = 2.54), and men at Christian colleges tie with women at secular colleges in the middle (mean = 2.64). Every group increasingly desires to be authorities in their field by their senior year, except for men at secular colleges who decline slightly. Different growth rates mean that men at Christian colleges converge with men at secular colleges and women at Christian colleges converge with women at secular colleges. The result is that gender effects are evident by senior year.
When it comes to perception of academic ability, institutional effects are evident in first-years, with students at Christian colleges rating their ability lower than do students at secular colleges (Figure 9). As seniors, groups feel better about their academic ability with the exception of women at secular colleges who decline by .05 percent. The result is that gender effects are evident by senior year.
Finally, when it comes to students’ drive to achieve, gender effects are evident in both the first- and fourth-years (Figure 10). Surprisingly, given the other results, women have greater drive to achieve than men. However, while three student groups become less driven by senior year, men at Christian colleges buck the trend and become more driven.
It is difficult to tell a persuasive story why these interaction effects develop the way they do. The one commonality, however, is that each of the three questions ends up with gender effects by senior year – a finding that is consistent with the general conclusion that gender is a more powerful shaper of views than the type of college students attend.
This article examined how the interaction of gender and the type of college a student attends plays out over a college education. We posited two general effects that could emerge from the data: gendered effects (that is, college women hold similar views, distinct from college men) and institutional effects (that is, men and women at Christian colleges hold similar views, distinct from their peers at secular colleges). We then traced the movement of student opinion from their first to final years in college. Examining whether the opinion gap converged, diverged, or remained the same over time can provide partial insights into what produces these group differences.
We draw two broad conclusions from this analysis. First, gender effects are far more prevalent than institutional or interaction effects. That is, women at Christian colleges have more in common with women at secular colleges than they do with men at their own schools. Second, size of the opinion gap seen in first-year students, whether institutional or gendered, generally did not change by the time students were seniors. This suggests that differences in student groups are the product of factors that manifest before they arrive at college.
These findings raise a number questions and issues concerning gender. First, should we be alarmed to see gender differences among college students? We might expect college men and women to see the world differently, but for women to see themselves differently seems another matter. For instance, we are concerned that college women have higher rates of depression, less self-confidence, and rate their emotional health lower than college men. Although it is possible that men inflate their self-worth in unhealthy ways, it is more likely that colleges need to redouble their efforts addressing the self-esteem concerns of women. Second, the results suggest that college is not a time of female empowerment relative to men. Although women made absolute gains on many key issues by their senior year – for example, they became less depressed, more confident, and more altruistic – they were unable to close the relative gap with men seen in first-years. Finally, these results show the root cause of gender differences lies in what happens before students reach college. The prevalence of the gender gap among first-years, and its stability throughout students’ college career, suggests that efforts at creating greater gender equality need to start at an earlier age.
These results also raise some interesting questions about Christian colleges. The most surprising finding in the analysis was that the trend-lines of students at Christian colleges look very similar to the trend-lines of students at secular colleges. There are two possible conclusions one can draw from this finding. The first possibility is that Christian colleges are failing in their mission. The entire purpose of Christian higher education is to provide students with curricular and extracurricular experiences that they would not get at a secular college. The absence of divergent trend-lines suggests that the uniqueness of Christian colleges comes mainly from the type of students they admit rather than the experience they provide.
A second possible conclusion is that the lack of institutional divergence is simply a methodological artifact. Again, consider several potential threats to validity in our study. First, there are the standard limitations of large-N survey data. If students were asked different questions – for example, has your understanding of the Bible and Christian doctrine changed over the past four years? – or if the questions were phrased differently, we might see more evidence of divergence. Indeed, alternative methodologies (such as ethnographies, in-depth interviews, content analysis, and so on) might better capture the uniqueness of Christian colleges.47 Second, our study aggregates all Protestant colleges in the HERI dataset, which obscures potentially important institutional differences. Future work might see if divergent effects are apparent when controlling for factors like college location, theology, or size. Finally, our work makes a distinction between Christian and secular colleges, rather than between Christian and secular students. Although there are good reasons to use college and not individuals as the unit of analysis, controlling for students’ faith might also produce different results.
A final question concerning institutional effects is perhaps the most controversial: is it a good or bad thing that students at Christian colleges grow more liberal over the course of their college career? We expect most people associated with Christian colleges would agree that certain student outcomes are desirable – for example, students are developing spiritually, they become more concerned with helping others, they feel better about themselves. When it comes to politics, however, our findings are likely to stir considerable debate. Conservative Protestants are sure to find it troubling that students at Christian colleges grow more liberal by their senior year and increasingly adopt what they believe are unbiblical views on subjects like abortion. For progressive Protestants, these results may suggest a welcome changing of the guard on political issues. On this point and others, we hope that these results stimulate a broader debate about the interplay of gender, religion, and college student development.48
Question and response categories from HERI used in this study. Indicate the importance to you personally of each of the following:
Becoming an authority in my field
Influencing the political structure
Influencing social values
Raising a family
Being very well-off financially
Helping others who are in difficulty
Developing a meaningful philosophy of life
Rate yourself on each of the following traits as compared with the average person your age. We want the most accurate estimate of how you see yourself.
Drive to achieve
Abortion should be legal
The activities of married women are best confined to the home and family
Colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus
Efficacy: Realistically, an individual can do little to bring about changes in our society
Question: How would you characterize your political views?
3=Middle of the road
Indicate which activities you did during the past year.
Felt overwhelmed by all I had to do
1=Not at all
HERI’s Classification of “Other Religious” Schools
Abilene Christian University Augustana College
Azusa Pacific University Bethel College
California Baptist University
Columbia College-South Carolina Cornerstone University
East Texas Baptist University
Eastern Mennonite University
Erskine College and Seminary
Fresno Pacific University
George Fox University
Grace College and Theological Seminary Greenville College
Gustavus Adolphus College
Houston Baptist University
Indiana Wesleyan University
Iowa Wesleyan College
Kentucky Wesleyan College
Moravian College and Moravian Theological Seminary
Mount Olive College
Mount Vernon Nazarene University
North Central College
Northwest Nazarene University
Oklahoma Wesleyan University
Palm Beach Atlantic University-West
Point Loma Nazarene University
Roanoke Bible College
Roberts Wesleyan College
Seattle Pacific University
Southern Wesleyan University
Spring Arbor University
The Master’s College and Seminary
Trinity Christian College
Cite this article
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- In particular, see Alyssa N. Bryant, “Assessing the Gender Climate of an Evangelical Student Subculture in the United States”; and “Negotiating the Complementarian Gender Ideology of an Evangelical Student Subculture: Further Evidence from Women’s Narratives.”
- Darren E. Sherkat, “Religion and Higher Education: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
- Alyssa N. Bryant, “Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years.”
- More details on the methodology of the HERI studies can be found at http://www.heri. ucla.edu/.
- The HERI classification is “other religious” which was described as “Protestant” prior to 2000.
- Alexander W. Astin, The College Environment (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1968).
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- For example, see Glanzer, “The Missing Factor in Higher Education: How Christian Colleges Are Unique and How They Can Stay That Way.”
- The efficacy question uses a four-point agree/disagree scale to gauge responses to this statement: “Realistically, an individual can do little to bring about changes in our society.”
- Professor Knecht studied and taught at secular colleges before coming to Westmont College, an evangelical liberal arts college. In his experience, Westmont offers a significantly different educational environment than other colleges where he studied or taught.
- We thank Patti Hunter, Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, Chris Hoeckley, Chandra Mallampalli, two anonymous reviewers, and Westmont students enrolled in POL 40 for their comments on earlier drafts. We are also grateful to Karly Noblitt for research assistance. Data was obtained from the Higher Education Research Institute. We also thank Westmont College for their support through a Professional Development Grant and a Summer Research Fellowship.