“Hillsdale is just obsessed with dating,” Kaitlyn Zellner, a counselor who works for the college, told me.
When I reached out for comment on this article, I received more than a dozen pitches from students and alumni offering to share the intimate secrets of their love lives.
Money magazine released an article a couple of years ago analyzing how colleges’ gender ratios affect their dating cultures. After comparing the dating scenes at a slew of universities with varying gender ratios, the author concluded that colleges dominated by female students tend to be hook-up heavy, while colleges with more men have a more traditional dating scene.
The results may sound a little counterintuitive — aren’t men the ones who pursue one-night stands more often? — but it’s not about desire. It’s about economics. When the dating market has more options for men, it is easier for them to take the simple route: forget the coffee date, fall into the bed. But when fewer women are available, they may be forced to buy a few lattes.
My friend Renee Dodson, a fourth-year student at Georgia Tech (63 percent male, 37 percent female), explained it to me this way: “People want what they can’t get — this goes for girls and guys. Anytime there is a scarcity of something, people work harder for it.”
But what does dating look like at Hillsdale, a college with not only a balanced gender ratio, but also an overwhelmingly religious student body?
Associate Dean of Women Rebecca Dell said the academics and the culture drive the dating scene much more than the gender ratio, which is split exactly down the middle. The college’s website reports that Hillsdale’s student body is 49 percent male and 51 percent female, but Dell said this semester, it is 50 – 50.
You could reason that the dating culture would be split as well: Half the students are hooking up (off campus, of course), half of them are getting coffee at Checker Records. But that’s simply not the case. There’s something different about Hillsdale’s culture.
Hookups still happen, which both Zellner and Director of Health Services Brock Lutz acknowledged, but more students seem to navigate the dating scene — or abandon dating altogether.
“I think a large portion of our students are actually afraid to engage or reach out to the opposite sex in a casual dating way because they are very protective of their hearts and want to walk relationships out in an honorable fashion,” Lutz said. “That is obviously a good thing, but I think it can keep people very cautious, maybe too cautious, and can lead others away from just getting to know other people of the opposite sex, which might turn into a romantic relationship.”
The deep desire for romantic companionship coupled with a fear of failure, a phenomenon resulting in the will-they-won’t-they relationships students call “hillsdating,” may be the result of a high-achieving and spiritually serious student body.
Senior Luke Miller, who is currently engaged, said Hillsdale’s culture means “it’s really hard to casually date, but that also makes emotional and spiritual intimacy much more central.”
But the best intentions don’t always achieve their intended results.
“I think Hillsdale culture takes relationships so seriously that it can either prevent people from reaching out or stifle a young relationship with a lot of serious expectations,” senior Elyse Hutcheson said. “Sometimes I think people take getting to know other people too seriously, especially if they come from a very conservative background where finding out what works best for you through multiple casual relationships is looked down upon.”
Sophomore Katie Dimmer agreed that Hillsdale students value intentional relationships, but she added that the fear of messing up doesn’t always come from internal pressure. On a small campus, it sometimes seems like everyone else is watching, she said.
“It really does feel very ‘high school’ a lot of the time here,” Dimmer said. “Everyone’s eyes are always on you, and if one person knows, then everyone knows.”
She said she never would feel like she had the “social ability” to approach someone that interested her. He might say no. He might tell his friends. She would have to explain it all to her friends. Can flirting ever just be flirting, or does it have to be the next topic of conversation over dinner in the dining hall?
Dani Morey ’17 — who has been dating her boyfriend, also an alumnus, since the summer after her freshman and his sophomore year — said the close community at Hillsdale can both empower and smother relationships.
“One of the things I love about Hillsdale is how close everyone gets, so everyone cares about each other and gets involved in each other’s lives. However, I think it’s damaging when applied to relationships. When you’re having a rough patch with your significant other, it is not the time you want mutual friends to be texting you trying to play middleman because they think you’re taking a break,” Morey said. “Since leaving college, and even when he had graduated and I was finishing my senior year, it was as if the unwanted third party in our relationship had finally left us.”
She also said she found herself worrying about the “PR side” of her relationship. Would people find their dates romantic enough? Would people think they were fighting unless they made a public appearance at AJ’s Café for an ice cream date? (Maybe they should try the anniversary cake flavor.)
The whole atmosphere may feel smothering at times, but some students may put the pressure on themselves.
“The dating scene at Hillsdale is not a healthy one at all,” Kathryn Wales, a part-time teacher at Hillsdale Academy, said not 30 seconds into a conversation about dating in college. “Many girls that I’ve met think if they’re going to date someone, it really needs to likely be their husband. They’re not having sex. If that’s a given, you should date lots of people. You learn a lot about yourself.”
Senior Patrick Lucas, who said he is gay and has never been on a date at Hillsdale, told me he’d like to go out on a date or two, but focusing on meeting a significant other is a misuse of his short time here.
“That’s not what college is about,” Lucas said. “It’s about finding the good, the true, and the beautiful, not about finding people who are also searching for them.”
A handful of students, including Morey, reached out to express frustration about the pressure they feel to get a “ring by spring,” a term ubiquitous at many Christian colleges — and little used everywhere else.
Senior Chandler Ryd, who is engaged to senior Lara Forsythe, said students should take dating seriously, but they shouldn’t take themselves seriously. Because he wanted to be intentional about his relationships, when he first heard the term “hillsdating” after arriving on campus, he decided to be careful to avoid it.
“People told me about it, and I was like, ‘That’s dumb. I don’t want to do that.’ There needs to be work discerning what the relationship is,” Ryd said.
Senior Mehgan Cain said students should ease up on both themselves and their relationships.
“I think many Hillsdale students have the propensity to take themselves a little too seriously which results in them taking dating too seriously,” she said. “As 18- to 22-year-old kids, we have not even met the majority of people we will know in our lifetimes, yet so many people are set on finding a soulmate here. It is just not for me. I think dating in my early 20s should be lower pressure and more casual.”
Wales said Hillsdale’s community offers a perfect environment for healthy dating, but students could handle it better.
“I wish there was a way to inspire everyone to agree to chill out about dating,” Wales said. “If you realize you’re not compatible, don’t blame that on the Holy Spirit.”