What ‘Ring by Spring’ Customs at Christian Colleges Can Teach Us About Marriage

Here’s an exposé of a horror story: Evangelical Christian colleges encourage their students to get engaged by graduation!

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an exotic tribal custom called “Ring by Spring” practiced widely at institutions of higher learning whose students believe in a strange cult book known as the Bible. Here is the Chronicle’s breathless story:

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.

In other words, Garns, a student at Houghton College, a small “Christ-centered” liberal arts institution in upstate New York, was a legal adult when she accepted that proposal from Martin. Two years later she’s now a senior and the couple plans to marry this coming June. Had Garns exclaimed her “Yes!” in 1955 instead of around 2015, she would have likely been right at the median age of 20.3 at which American women got married for the first time. That is to say, half of American women were actually younger than Garns back then when they allowed a young man to slip an engagement ring onto their finger. And undoubtedly like many a young couple back then, Martin and Garns, who had dated for three years before their engagement, according to the Chronicle story, talked over their hopes for wedlock with Garns’s parents, who agreed that Garns was mature enough to become a wife.

Breathlessly, the Chronicle reports that Houghton actually encourages those youthful marriages among its undergraduates, as does many a college identifying itself with conservative Christianity: “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.’”

Ring by Spring—along with its slangy correlative, the “MRS degree“—not too long ago was a widely accepted expectation for female undergraduates at all colleges in America, secular as well as religious. And why not? A college campus populated by a wide array of young men of similar age and similar intellectual abilities and aspirations, and also allowing the opportunity to get to know those young men under leisurely circumstances, might seem the ideal venue for a young woman to meet a lifetime mate—and also to assure herself that she will have children during the peak fertility years of her twenties rather than have to endure expensive and uncertain fertility treatments later.

But nowadays, the whole idea of marrying before age thirty is regarded with deep suspicion. The Chronicle, quoting self-styled experts, reports that colleges encouraging an “engagement frenzy” among their undergraduates risk exposing them to marital “difficulties,” including a greater statistical likelihood of divorce among those who marry before age twenty-five and the likelihood that early marriage would push women into traditional “gender roles,” including childbearing, when they could be pursuing careers instead.

Cultural hostility toward marriage practices that would have been deemed normal by your grandmother is amazingly widespread. A Buzzfeed article, “15 Signs You Go to a ‘Ring by Spring’ School,” found early marriage culture on those campuses to be “kind of…a joke.” An article on the website Swoon, “5 Myths All Christian College Students Hear,” warns: “You don’t even understand how young you are.” An article on The Lala, “What College Women Really Think of the ‘Ring by Spring’ Phenomenon,” pontificates: “A lot of women named goals that are more important to them before taking the leap into a real ‘adult’ relationship including basic adult skills: figuring out taxes, being able to schedule a dentist appointment without adult guidance (lol), figuring out exactly what a 401k is, being able to make a major financial purchase without a parent’s fiscal help, and of course landing an amazing post-grad job.”

The worst opprobrium, however, has been reserved for those who urge finding a mate before graduation on purely secular grounds. The chief villain here would be “Princeton Mom” (and Princeton grad) Susan Patton, infamous for her 2013 letter to the campus’s Daily Princetonian (and later, a Wall Street Journal op-ed and a 2014 book, Marry Smart). Patton wrote: “There is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. You will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.” She urged college women to eschew the hook-up culture and search seriously for potential husbands by joining wholesome campus organizations from debate club to band where they might meet young men with similar interests. The level of hostility that greeted Patton’s arguments was astonishing, ranging from Forbes writer Deborah L. Jacobs’s assertion that college-educated women in the workforce in their late twenties and early thirties have no more trouble finding suitable husbands than their younger undergrad sisters to Washington Post blogger Alyssa Rosenberg, who accused Patton of harboring a “distaste for young women” in the guise of solicitude, implying that Patton had a condescending attitude toward female undergrads who refused to consider their male classmates husband material. Rosenberg’s blog post was titled “The Cruelty of the Princeton Mom.”

Cruel Patton might have been, but the fact remains that women who started looking for husbands when they were young, including those MRS degree-seekers of the 1950s, had a far better chance of actually landing husbands than today’s young women. In a 2009 article, University of Virginia sociologist and National Marriage Project director W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out that 66 percent of American women in 1960 were married. That percentage fell to 51 percent in 2007, when the average age of first marriage for women was 25.6. Perhaps those Ring by Spring customs at evangelical Christian colleges have some wisdom to them after all.

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