The State of the Freshman Soul

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, March 12, 2015

The State of the Freshman Soul

A few weeks ago, the report on what is arguably the most respected annual survey of college freshmen was released. Conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education research Institute for almost 50 years, the survey explores hundreds of issues – from politics to exercise habits, emotional state to spiritual moorings.

Many of the results could have been expected. TV viewing is down, use of social media is up. Fewer than one in 50 students smokes cigarettes. And to no one’s surprise, they are less likely than ever to identify themselves as part of a religion.

If the media picked up on a surprise headline, it was their emotional state.

Around one in ten of the 150,000 students surveyed had frequently “felt depressed” during the past year, a significant rise over the 6.1 percent reported five years earlier. Those who “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments rose from 27.1 percent to 34.6 percent.

But the stunner for me was how it reflected the meteoric rise of the “nones” over its many years charting the state of the freshmen soul.

In this most recent survey, almost 28% said they had no religious preference, which coincides with other data I detailed in my book, The Rise of the Nones.

But notice how rapid the rise has been:

1984 Report:    8.8%
2005 Report:    17.5%
2014 Report:    24.6%
2015 Report:    28%

That’s not the “nones” rising.

That’s the “nones” exploding.

James Emery White


Alan Schwarz, “More College Freshmen Report Having Felt Depressed,” The New York Times, February 5, 2015, read online.

Melissa Korn, “College Freshmen Are Leaning Away From Religion,” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2015, read online.

James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker). 

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The State of the Freshman Soul