Originally published for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
It was "surreal" for Nikki Garns when Cedric Martin got on one knee in Pennsylvania’s Caledonia State Park, framed by a beautiful waterfall and mountains, to ask her if she would marry him. When she exclaimed, "Yes!," Ms. Garns was only a sophomore.
Mr. Martin’s proposal, although it felt surreal, wasn’t a surprise. For about a month before the engagement, both Ms. Garns and Mr. Martin had talked with her parents, assuring them that they were mature enough to be engaged. Initially, her parents said they thought she was too young. After talking with their daughter one-on-one, however, Ms. Garns’s parents gave Mr. Martin their approval.
Ms. Garns isn’t the only student at Houghton College, a Christian college in western New York, who’s engaged. Like many Christian institutions, Houghton is gripped by a trend known as "ring by spring," which refers to the aspiration among many students to be engaged by the spring semester of their senior year.
And, like other colleges, Houghton acknowledges the trend, and even advances it. The college’s counseling center offers a couples retreat for seriously dating or engaged couples, which brings 12 to 15 couples to a local camp to listen to a renowned speaker discuss the Biblical fundamentals of marriage. Six weeks after the retreat, the couples meet up again for a "Great Date Night."
Each Christian college is different in its response to the "ring by spring" culture. For example, Liberty University, America’s biggest Christian college, leads an engaged-couples’ workshop and offers an academic course titled "Marriage and Family." The university’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., has said that telling prospective students they can find their "mate" at Liberty is a "recruiting tool." Weekly convocation speakers discuss marriage frequently.
At other Christian colleges, marriage is discussed in a similar way — at couples’ retreats and even on campus tours, when tour guides joke about "ring by spring." And while many Christian colleges help advance the culture, they didn’t start it. Many students enter Christian colleges seeing marriage as an important life goal, a notion instilled in them by their families and churches.
Stacy Keogh George, an assistant professor of sociology at Whitworth University, surveyed students at a small Christian college about "ring by spring." She found that friends, family, and churches ranked the highest as the origins of pressure to get engaged. She stated in the report that even though colleges are not the cause of the phenomenon, it’s their responsibility to "guide students to pursue healthy relationships."
"Ring by spring" comes with undeniable social pressure, but Ms. Garns said she didn’t feel it. She and Mr. Martin had dated for three years before getting engaged. And, she says, the culture makes for an exciting environment. When another couple at Houghton gets engaged, Ms. Garns’s response is, "Oh my gosh, another person, welcome to the club!" She said she appreciates the opportunity to "be giggly and talk about different wedding plans" with classmates who can relate to her situation.
But Kelly Haer, director of Pepperdine University’s Relationship IQ program, says that "ring by spring" at Christian colleges can exacerbate a feeling of "ambiguous loss" for single students. Ambiguous losses, as Ms. Haer explained, are those that "are hard to pinpoint and are also ongoing and lack closure."
Ambiguous loss can cause students to feel anxious or depressed, said Ms. Haer. "The person is always living with hope and in that hope, it’s really painful," because that desired partner might not appear, she said. "The person will never get an email from God saying, I don’t have a partner for you," Ms. Haer said.
Then again, there "are times when college students are pairing up and getting engaged by the spring of their senior year and it’s really healthy and appropriate," Ms. Haer acknowledged. The problem is when the "ring by spring" culture is so ubiquitous that it causes students to get engaged quicker because they don’t want to feel left out. Even among couples with strong relationships, getting married young can create difficulties, and people who marry before age 25 face a higher likelihood of divorce.
The engagement frenzy can also cause emotional distress for LGBT students, especially if their prospective relationships are not welcomed at their college. "Anybody who desires to be partnered, and the person is not physically present in their life and is psychologically present in their mind, is experiencing ambiguous loss," said Ms. Haer.
"Ring by spring" can also cause female students to feel greater pressure to get engaged compared with their male classmates. Ms. George thinks one reason is the gender roles that conservative Christian communities uphold. "Domestic obligations in society still exist despite our advances in gender equality," she said.
Krista McGee, an alumna of Cedarville University, said she complained to the college’s bookstore when she noticed a shirt designed for a baby that said, "I’m a product of the Cedarville University Mrs. Degree." The shirt was offensive to Ms. McGee, she said, because it upheld the assumption that a woman’s purpose at a Christian college is to "meet a guy, get married, and have kids."
And although the bookstore removed the shirt after Ms. McGee’s complaint, the fact that the shirt was seen as a viable product "speaks to deeper issues that are at all Christian colleges as to the role of women in the work force."
Some Christian colleges have chosen to continue the traditional conversations about early marriage being a desirable outcome for all students, while others have transformed the conversation as later marriages have become more common across American society.
Michael Jordan, Houghton’s dean of the chapel, acknowledges that elements of the "ring by spring" culture, like couples’ retreats, can exclude many students, which is why he tries not to talk about relationships in a "marriage normative" way when he preaches in chapel or meets with students one-on-one.
Mr. Jordan said that Houghton still emphasizes relationships, but that he also helps students see that their "relational needs," such as companionship, can be met outside of marriage, in casual dating or friendships.
When students do decide to get married, Cedarville wants to help them be sure they’re doing the right thing. Angel Hodge, a junior, joined the university’s Fit to Be Tied program, which "makes sure couples are being intentional and not just getting married as a sort of goal pushed on them," she said.
Student couples are paired with older married couples from the faculty and staff, who teach the young couples about communication, co-managing finances, and what the Bible says about marriage.
The program has given Ms. Hodge language to talk about her prospective marriage in a way that’s comforting to her family, who were initially very concerned.
For couples who worry that the "ring by spring" culture pressured them to get engaged, Ms. Haer suggests that they "seek input from those who know them well in their community and hear other voices about the goodness or viability of their relationship."
To remove undue pressure for engagement, Ms. George thinks Christian colleges should undermine the entire "ring by spring" culture by educating students on the plurality of options. Students need to know that there is "not one narrative" of graduating "and starting a married life with one person at 22," she said.
At Baylor University, administrators don’t push the "ring by spring" idea, said Ryan Richardson, the university’s associate chaplain and director of worship and chapel. Mr. Richardson still talks about marriage in his sermons, but emphasizes that there’s no "magic dust" when a couple gets married. Marriage isn’t about the feelings of elation one feels when engaged, he says. Rather, it’s about two individuals knowing each other intimately, which can occasionally create conflict.
Baylor used to have an engaged-couples’ program that was offered once a semester. The Spiritual Life office eventually decided to discontinue it, Mr. Richardson says, because it seemed like the "Biblical dating" approach it advocated was no longer of particular interest to students. Instead, Baylor began to offer programs about "religious liberty," teaching students to respect the diversity of religious or nonreligious perspectives at the university.
Eliminating the engaged-couples’ program has been part of the changing conversation about marriage at Baylor. With Baylor’s growing enrollment and diversity, Mr. Richardson says, there isn’t a "strong leaning towards marriage as quickly as possible."