REC Seminars & Presentations

The Search for the “Right” College: An Overview of White Evangelical College Decision-Making with Implications for Practice 

Thursday, September 21, 2023 — 3:00pm (ET)

Brandon N. Edwards, PhD Harvard University

Although white evangelicals have long been skeptical about non-sectarian higher education, the current climate in the United States necessitates a fresh look at possible sources of their beliefs. This is relevant since many of the current culture wars center on education. For instance, book bans in Texas public schools, funded by evangelicals, take aim at non-heteronormative sexuality, abortion, and transgenderism. Likewise, in Florida, legislation promulgated by evangelicals and signed by the governor takes aim at “woke-ism” in public K-12 and post-secondary institutions. Furthermore, while some evangelical student groups have been unrecognized by university administrators seeking to implement “all-comers” policies, others have been denied funding for conservative speakers on campus. Simultaneously, evidence suggests that whereas enrollment at non-sectarian colleges and universities has declined or stagnated, it has increased at evangelical institutions.  

Edwards’s research seeks to understand how evangelical high school students navigate the college enrollment process in the current polarized climate. Since individual students are impacted by actors such as family, peers, church, and school, the research adopted an ecological approach. To ensure this, the findings draw from 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork at a Southern Baptist church in Charlottesville, Virginia. Specifically, participant observation and semi-structured interviews were undertaken with five students and their families, peers, clergy, and teachers across a variety of contexts.  

Using discourse analysis and inductive coding, three major findings emerged. First, when considering post-secondary options, youth clergy urged students to get “plugged in” to evangelical culture due to a perceived ontological security threat represented by a rapidly shifting society. Second, mainstream “culture” was understood in pejorative terms. Relatedly, parents and clergy endeavor to inculcate their students with a biblical understanding of “culture” that forms the basis of their “worldview.” Third, although models of college choice theory partially explain how evangelicals decide where to enroll, an important factor not included is this same “worldview.” Taken together, the findings indicate the need for university administrators, faculty, and parachurch organization leaders to consider the evangelical mindset toward non-sectarian higher education and implement opportunities for students to feel included and engaged.  

Together, we will consider a few questions. Is DEI the right vessel for discussions about religious identity among college students? Specifically, could DEI be used as a means for helping white evangelical students feel more included at non-sectarian universities? If not, why not? 

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