I recently spent a day on the BYU campus as part of an informal reunion with several old dorm-floor roommates and family members. It was a nice visit, and made me recognize something that often gets forgotten in online discussions about BYU: It is a great place for LDS kids to go to college.
Remember high school? Unless you grew up in Utah or Idaho, you were one of a handful of LDS kids, probably surrounded by a culture of profanity, drugs, and sex. Then you graduate and have a choice: go to BYU and leave most of this noise behind, or go to another university and be surrounded by a slightly more elevated culture of profanity, alcohol, and sex. At BYU, you are part of a student body of thousands of LDS students; anywhere else, it might be a bigger handful of LDS students, but still a pretty small group.
Yes, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect and for brevity, but just a bit. There are plenty of BYU students who never had an LDS teacher or an LDS friend until their freshman year at college. There are LDS students whose total exposure to the religious and cultural world of Mormonism was a few dozen members they get to know in their branch or ward, Conference twice a year, and the New Era. We often think of missions as a key socializing institution for young Latter-day Saints, but BYU is at least as effective in that function.
I’m sure people will weigh in with their own view of things, but I do want to ward off the usual BYU gripes that come out in such a discussion. I do not see the choice of BYU as one of sacrificing academics in return for a pro-LDS environment or a nice social life. For example, I had a part-time prof at BYU who also taught at the University of Utah. She related her experience writing exams: at the U she had to write them easy enough so most of the students would pass; at BYU she had to write them tough enough so some of the students wouldn’t get A’s. In terms of the academic quality of undergraduates, there is simply no comparison. As part of our visit to campus, my group of old BYU friends had a short and friendly personal visit with President Samuelson. He mentioned in passing that the average GPA of incoming BYU freshmen is 3.8 — a lot of BYU alumni wouldn’t even get admitted now. Asked for advice to pass on to the next generation of BYU students, he said simply, “Study hard.” So academically, going to BYU is not a compromise.
I’m not saying BYU is the right place for every LDS undergraduate. And there is the obvious numbers problem that not every LDS student can go to BYU, even if you add BYU-Idaho and BYU-Hawaii to the list. Students can have both a great college experience and a great LDS experience at most universities if they want to. But at the end of the day, BYU remains a great place for bright LDS students to spend the best four years of their life.