It’s common that young Catholics go to college and drop their faith practice. Newman Connection, a U.S. organization that seeks to boost faith on campuses, estimates that more than 80% of Catholic collegians stop attending Mass by the time they graduate. Some come back. Some don’t.

The dynamic raises the question: Can Catholic high schools form students in a way that helps faith endure the college challenge?

Educators at western Oregon Catholic high schools say teens ought to get a solid faith formation but should be allowed to ask honest and tough questions. A mix of tradition and candor, educators say, will allow young adults to embrace faith because they feel God’s call from within, not only as an expectation of parents.

Gary Hortsch, director of faith at La Salle Prep in Milwaukie, wrote a doctoral dissertation on strategies in faith formation, highlighting the importance of positive and inviting relationships in churches and schools.

“The first step in successful religious education is that there is a trust and a strong relationship built between the teacher and the student,” Hortsch said in a May interview with the La Salle newspaper, the Falconer. “Teachers really do make a big difference.”

Horstch said young people energetically pursue matters directly related to their lives. “Religious education at times can become abstract in thinking, but young people from all religious affiliation patterns or conditionalities need to see the direct relationship between what they’re studying and how it impacts their lives and their values,” he told the Falconer.

Hortsch found that young people need to feel comfortable asking big questions. At La Salle, he explained, the religion department has sought ways to connect more deeply with student experience. Teachers also seek to relate study to current issues of social justice or morality.

Showing how faith matters in everyday life will keep young people engaged with it, said Bob Weber, president of Blanchet School in Salem.

“We want kids to grow in their faith when they are here,” said Weber. “When they go to college and get up on Sunday morning, it’s going to be up to them. We want them to take the spiritual aspect that we have cultivated with them wherever they go — to college and beyond.”

Weber, a member of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem, said student faith will fare better if there is a strong relationship among the high schools, parishes and parents. “With a strong foundation, kids may wander but they will come back,” he said.

Danielle Wise, veteran campus minister at Blanchet, asked students what would keep them engaged in faith over the long haul.

Students explained, first, that it seems natural for young adults to question faith practice when no longer around their parents. The students urged free and open dialogue. Being silenced or shut down will cause youths to disengage and go elsewhere, they said.

The Blanchet students added that the call to faith practice should be an invitation, not an expectation, much less a threat. There should be a sense, they said, that a person who explores other avenues always will be welcomed back and respected.

The students want a faith that can be applied to everyday life, not just heady ideas. They thirst for strong values, but want the space to choose a path on their own terms.

Blanchet students lauded their school for setting a foundation of belief with Mass, confessions and adoration. They said the retreat program is a strong experience that will live in their memories. The students appreciate the moral role-playing that happens in religion classes and said they could use skills on how to answer questions and challenges when it comes to belief.

The question of continuing faith in college sits on the front burner at Marist High in Eugene. A member of the University of Oregon Newman Center parish noted low numbers at her church and asked Marist leaders how they prepare high school Catholics to stay involved in college.

Rick Martin, a theology teacher and campus minister at Marist for 34 years, starts with context. Catholic high schools are swimming against large cultural trends, Martin explained. As recently as the 1960s, the triad of Catholic family life, parish and school sheltered young people, who maintained Catholic practice because that’s what everyone they knew did.

Given the situation now, with a massive marketplace of ideas and Catholics hurtling down the mainstream, one strategy won’t help all, said Martin. He puts a variety of ideas into action. First, he believes in offering faith formation in a way that will transfer from high school to college and the rest of life. The most transferable thing, he said, is a mature personal connection with Jesus. Second would be a positive experience of Christian community.

For those who are clearly committed even in high school, Martin suggests training in how to defend the faith, since believers always meet detractors in college.

Parishes, families and schools need to find a way to work together again, said Martin, who urges high schools to form partnerships with parish youth ministry.

Maura Timoney-DeVille, campus minister and theology teacher at St. Mary’s Academy in downtown Portland, said her school employs the power of storytelling. St. Mary’s invites alumni, parents and others to speak to students about personal religious journeys.

“It shows what a lived faith looks like,” Timoney-DeVille said.

Often, the storytellers explain that wondering, questioning and pushing boundaries is an important part of belief. Along those lines, St. Mary’s welcomes hard questions about faith, but it also gives tradition, Scripture, stories and other resources to help.

“You get an opportunity to grow on your own terms,” Timoney-DeVille said.

Don Clarke, campus minister at Jesuit High in Southwest Portland, said weekly Masses and a vigorous retreat program in high school could make students more apt to try something similar in college. “They could think to themselves: I have done that before, and it was OK.”

But there is something deeper that will sustain faith practice, added Clarke. Schools and the church need to convince young people that the church cares for them and cares for their friends. In addition, linking service to faith is essential; Clarke observes that young adults now place a high value on doing good and being generous. A church like that will be attractive, he concluded.

Some good news: College can be a good place to find a peer community of faith, said Joe Bernard, college counselor at Valley Catholic in Beaverton. Bernard notes that many young Catholics who get involved in college campus ministry are deeply fulfilled by it but then are at a loss after graduation, when the parishes they attend are largely populated by elders.

“It’s a huge disconnect,” said Bernard.

What will keep young people involved in faith, he explained, are communities of young adults at parishes.