Spiritual Fit: Spirituality’s Impact on Retention at a Faith-based Institution

By Crystal Keetch

    CC image "Nathan Tasker at Taylor University" courtesy of Jim Garringer on Flickr

    Does spirituality reflected in religious practices affect retention at a private Christian, liberal arts institution? How do we help our first-year students? As retention becomes a more prevalent concern at our colleges and universities, it is frequently discussed as we attempt to connect and integrate students into the campus culture. Christian colleges and universities not only tout academics, but also our spiritual and religious climates. This added component benefits some, but causes others to struggle. Based on the evaluation of numerous spiritual and religious fit questions, my research found that at a Christian college, there is a significant difference between students who return and those who withdrew or were academically dismissed.

    While this study produced many different facets of information, its overall finding was that students who withdrew were not as happy or engaged with the institution’s spiritual climate as those who returned the following semester. Of the first-year students who returned the second semester, 92.2% reported that they felt they were growing in their relationship with Christ. One avenue for this growth was personal devotions. Compared to those who returned, almost four times as many students who were academically dismissed reported never doing devotions. Returning students also more frequently reported being involved in small group Bible studies and weekly church attendance. Returners also reported more positive aspects of chapel and attending optional worship events.

    Both students who returned and who were academically dismissed reported that relationships and campus community helped them grow spiritually, while students who withdrew did not. The data collected aligns with current theory, specifically Tinto’s (2003) Model of Student Departure, which states that students who do not feel they fit at an institution tend to leave the institution. The model offers a likely explanation for those students who withdrew (i.e., students who did not feel they fit the institution’s spiritual climate were less apt to return to the institution the following semester).

    When looking at these results, there are several implications for how we can better assist our students to grow spiritually and connect to the spiritual climate. My study found that there is a deep value in the co-curricular side to assist students to succeed. With this information, there are many implications for best practices for institutions and especially for student development practitioners. One key implication is the implementation of small groups for students. Groups could be created based on living space, topical study, interest, majors, or another factor; but allowing students to find a group and place to fit seems to greatly benefit students. Along with this, a curriculum that would benefit students in the transition of their first year could be created to guide these small groups.

    Since church attendance seems to be an anchoring spiritual practice for students, assisting students in finding a place to connect could be essential in helping them find a church home. This could be done through information about churches in the area, a church fair provided for incoming students, or a “go to church with your Resident Assistant/Resident Director/Professor” Sunday.

    First-year students who returned the following semester reported some areas of struggle and concern. If these issues are addressed early on, it can benefit students who return and those who otherwise would not persist. Students reported struggling with balancing their schedules to create time for friendships, homework, and a spiritual life. Another difficulty was how to reconcile different ideas of faith. Students also reported being unsure how to navigate a dry time in their spiritual life, and how to view their spiritual lives holistically, rather than segmented into activities and rituals. Carefully considering these topics could lead to several avenues to better guide students in their first year. The aforementioned struggles could be covered in first-year classes, seminars, orientations, or first-year experiences, along with spiritual formation or Bible classes. Addressing student concerns could be incorporated into residence hall programming or intentional and meaningful conversations with residence life staff and faculty members. Another way to deeply impact students would be to ensure that student leaders are trained to walk through these issues with their students by preparing them to have such conversations and equipping them by personally helping student staff as they individually wrestle with these issues. As students strive to reconcile confusion in their faith, providing opportunities for students to have these conversations could be vital for them. This could occur in small group settings, through meaningful conversations, or even by opening opportunities to discuss concerns with the institution’s chapel personnel.

    Faculty could also explain how their classes and classwork can benefit and be a part of spiritual growth and practice. Along with this, inviting faculty into this conversation allows for more meaningful mentoring experiences for students with faculty. Mentoring opportunities and people willing to walk alongside students who are struggling can positively impact students. As a result, equipping professors, administrators, and staff to guide students could also benefit students.

    Overall, developing formal or informal programming and openings for dialogue would allow students to voice concerns and express needs, thereby helping each student integrate and grow. Creating these opportunities through small groups, church attendance, residence hall initiatives, and other means could greatly benefit students in finding their fit within each institution.

    The important question that arises is this: How do institutions ensure that we provide students a foundation for success as they progress through their college years and future life? The ideas presented in this article provide practical examples of how, as an institution, we can assist our new students in their holistic spiritual lives and, hopefully, retain them at our institutions.

    Crystal Keetch serves as a Resident Director and the Assistant Student Conduct Administrator for Indiana Wesleyan University. 


    Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). London: University of Chicago Press.


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