When Blanchard bells toll

November 16, 2017

Is Wheaton where you go to find the one or a perfect date? Or is it where dating goes to die?

In February 1938, the Record office became the official headquarters for Wheaton’s College Date and Escort Bureau. “Dates for anyone anytime,” read an advertisement in the Record’s pages. “The purpose of this bureau is to suggest likely dates to any student upon application, and its policy is confidential and efficient service.” It would seem 2017 isn’t the only year Wheaton’s dating culture has been difficult to navigate.

A survey conducted of Fischer dorm in 1986 reflected that 75 percent of women felt there was a “lack of guys asking girls out.” And yet, a 1997 survey showed that 30 percent of Wheaton students marry other Wheaties; and a 2015 Record article noted that of the 44,595 living undergraduate and graduate Wheaton alumni, there are 5,319 alumni couples.

Examining the research that’s been done on millennials, Christian colleges and Wheaton itself reveals a story about the “ring by spring” phenomenon that’s more nuanced than might be expected.       

Millennials and marriage

According to data collected by Goldman Sachs, only 23 percent of millennials — those born between 1980 and 2000 — are married. A 2016 Gallup News article noted that a whopping 59 percent of millennials are single or unmarried. Meanwhile, the average marrying age is growing older. A 2014 Pew Research Center study shows that the average age at which women marry is 26, while the average age for men is 29. These statistics point to the increasing unpopularity of young marriage among millennials.

This trend correlates to a variety of lifestyle decisions millennials are making. “Many millennials were raised with rising divorce rates and broken homes, so they’re far less likely to buy into marriage as the only or best form of relationship for themselves,” Antonia Hall, a psychologist, relationship expert and bestselling author told Business Insider in 2016. “With everything from hookup culture to poly lifestyles and open relationships, there’s an emerging expansion of views on what partnerships can look like. This has led to a desire to [explore] more than the outdated ‘one method for all’ that is marriage.”

In addition, many millennials simply do not feel financially stable enough to begin recovering from college debt while also funding a wedding. A 2016 survey conducted by the Knot showed that the average American wedding costs $35,329, which is nearly as high as the average student loan debt for the class of 2016. Understandably, it seems unreasonable to sign up for an extra $35,000 worth of debt when it will likely take several years to pay off college debt alone.

Yet top-dollar colleges, such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale, are among the “Top 10 Universities to Find A Husband,” according to College Magazine in 2013. While the high price of college education, the growing amount of student loans and the demanding course loads would be likely reasons for students to save marriage for another time, these factors do not appear to hold millennials back. USA Today noted that “a number of college-aged couples across the U.S. have chosen to walk down the aisle before — or shortly after — walking at graduation.”

Most students know this phenomenon as “ring by spring,” the arbitrary deadline placed on college relationships. According to an article in the Baylor Lariat, ring by spring “is a saying for young college women who want to get engaged before they graduate from college and, in the opinions of some, solely go to college for this purpose.”

So although a majority of millennials are choosing to marry later in life, ring by spring is still prevalent at many colleges, particularly among religiously affiliated campus groups or universities.

A stigmatized culture

How does Wheaton engage with ring by spring? In a 1997 Record article titled “The 4-Step Program for the Intimately Challenged,” student writers Nate Anderson and Dave Terpstra stated, “In the interest of pushing the Wheaton marriage rate up to 80 or 90 percent (where I think we all agree it belongs), we are proud to offer this handy ‘Four-Step Program for the Intimately Challenged.’” Though their opening appears to be tongue-in-cheek, the remainder of the article offers four serious steps to establish lasting relationships that will hopefully result in engagement.

So why don’t we see such high ring by spring statistics? A 1986 Record article already answered this question 11 years before Anderson and Terpstra gave fellow students their dating advice: while some on campus do date, the number of people dating is lower than it could be because “everyone jokes around about it so much.”

Fewer people dating equals fewer rings by spring. The pressure surrounding Wheaton’s dating and ring by spring subcultures has pushed the idea of ring by spring beyond an acknowledged phenomenon into the realm of the cliché and faux pas.

Yet Wheaton has a well-established ring by spring subculture. In a recent survey I conducted on Oct. 21, of 49 Wheaton college students and alumni, every one of them had heard of ring by spring and 91.8 percent knew someone who got engaged before graduating. Of the survey respondents, 18 first heard of ring by spring during their freshman year, while 18 others had heard about it prior to coming to Wheaton.

At the very least, students have heard the Blanchard bells toll, announcing a couple’s engagement to all of campus. In fact, Wheaton includes ringing the tower bells to announce student engagements on their website as a campus tradition that “foster[s] community and provide[s] shared experiences for students, faculty and staff.”

Despite the existence of Wheaton’s ring by spring subculture, attitudes toward it remain ambivalent. As one student who responded to the survey noted, perhaps “[ring by spring] places unnecessary pressure on Wheaton students to find a spouse, and it makes the dating culture awkward — there is pressure for casual dating to become too serious too quickly. Even though I am personally engaged, I dislike the pressure associated with this ‘de facto deadline.’”

“Ring by spring can put a lot of pressure on people to find their spouse at Wheaton and may make it seem like Wheaton is the only place where one might find a Christian spouse. [It] can make people who leave Wheaton single feel like they have failed,” another survey respondent said.

Another 33 respondents also noted the negative connotations associated with ring by spring, citing its association with anxiety, pressure and sarcasm. Sophomore Nat Lewis called it “an amusing but possibly damaging campus trope.”

Senior Emily Taetzsch offered: “While I respect people’s right to get married when they feel they’re ready, when we joke about ring by spring at Wheaton, we give it a kind of power that it doesn’t deserve … Life after college has challenges that most couples can never imagine, and it concerns me to watch the seriousness of a lifelong commitment be overshadowed by the hype surrounding engagements and weddings.”

Lauren Wilhite, a 2016 Wheaton graduate, gave a positive perspective on the phenomenon. “I feel like [ring by spring is] made fun of a little too much. People decide when to get engaged according to what time works best for them as a couple, and if that happens to be in the spring, then so be it!”

Is religion reversing the trend?

The generally negative response to ring by spring on Wheaton’s campus appears to align with lower marriage rates among millennials. Despite its generally negative perception on Wheaton’s campus, however, ring by spring continues to flourish both at Wheaton and at other colleges. A 2014 Pew Research Center study showed a 3 percent increase in marriages among college-educated millennials from 2011 to 2014. Of married millennials, 28 percent met in college, and 15 percent went to the same high school, according to a Facebook Data Science study. While these statistics by no means represent the majority, they indicate a shift toward more millennials getting engaged before spring of their senior year.

In fact, both studies showed that marriage rates are higher among religiously affiliated millennials, particularly those affiliated with religions, such as Christianity or Islam, that traditionally value marriage.

Student newspapers have cited Christian beliefs as a factor encouraging couples to pursue marriage in college. According to the Baylor Lariat, Christians look to Adam and Eve for their understanding that men and women were created for marriage. An article in the Pitt News, the University of Pittsburgh’s student paper, also notes that Christians often see marriage as the threshold to adulthood, citing Genesis 2:24 to say that children should only leave their parents once they have settled down with a spouse.

A 2017 piece in Relevant Magazine adds a different explanation. “There’s a reason nearly every Christian institution has jokes about how young her members wed: They’re accurate! What’s more, everyone knows why, whether it’s stated subtly or explicitly: sex.” Most Christians would agree that extra-marital sex is wrong, the article notes, so in response to the sensual urges that accompany young adulthood, some choose to follow Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:9: “If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry.”

But while these are some of the more practical, scripturally-founded reasons for the ring by spring trends on Christian college campuses, they are only part of the story.

The marriage experience

Some young Christian adults, such as Emily Bruere, a 2014 Wheaton graduate, are drawn to marrying young because they would prefer to experience life together rather than apart as they go through the beginning stages of post-college adulthood.

“[Doing day-to-day life together is] my favorite part — coming home to him, getting to do dinner together, just sitting at home with him,” Bruere said of her marriage to Adam Bruere, also a 2014 Wheaton graduate. She has been married for nearly two years, and despite some very big challenges, she described it as a “blast.”

Hank Bowen, a recently engaged senior, said, “I am excited for the companionship; I am excited for all the ‘firsts’ of the next stage of life with a partner; and quite simply, I am excited to go about everyday mundane life with my best friend.”

When asked why he feels ready to get married, Bowen answered, “God, time and community.” He explained: “[My fiancé and I] are at a natural point in our lives where [marriage] makes logical sense.” He said he and his fiancé have consistently “spent serious time in prayer and have felt God’s repeated blessing and direction in our relationship.” They have been together for nearly three years, which he believes has given them the opportunity to work through many highs and lows of life together. “We have really gotten to know one another’s families and close friends and have gotten lots of good feedback [on our relationship] over an extended period of time from those closest to us,” Bowen added.

Bowen said he recognizes that marriage is a “serious and daunting task regardless of your age.” But at the end of the day, he said he would rather take on any obstacles with his fiancé than alone.

Do you hear the bells?

Do religious views surrounding marriage, therefore, serve as the main catalyst for serious relationships regardless of students’ accrued college debt and lifestyle stability? Or are some millennials simply beginning to ask themselves, “Why wait?”

At Wheaton, it’s hard to say. While the Blanchard bells chime often every spring, there are many students whose Wheaton story does not include a ring by spring. Whether or not a ring by spring is desirable is something each individual has to decide for him or herself. Bowen offered a word of advice: “Start actively living out the man or woman you wish to be once you are married. Whether you get married or not is beside the point!”

“No More Lonely Hours,” Wheaton’s Date Bureau headlined in 1938. Seventy-nine years later, many Wheaton students are saying the opposite: “No More Ring by Spring” or “Ring by Spring, but Later.”

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