There may just be another reason for a decline in the numbers of young adults entering religious life: student debt.
As CNS reports today in a story about a Virginia couple helping to relieve the debt of some hoping to join religious life, "[r]eligious orders are reluctant to accept candidates who have substantial debt. That means many people are faced with the possibility that their dreams might be put on hold."
Student debt is a reality for many. And with rising tuition costs, getting through four years of college without needing to borrow money is more and more difficult. My sense (and experience) has been that this is especially true for the lower middle-class, who don't qualify for need-based funding and who face steep competition from those who've been able to afford unpaid internships, test prep courses, and the time and costs associated with assorted extracurricular activities that round out scholarship and grant applications. Of course, the burden of student debt is not exclusive to this economic group. Many people, for many reasons, feel its weight.
Simply not attending college and therefore foregoing the costs should seem a possibility, but that's not the narrative that is told in schools. Rather, what most people are told by teachers and parents is that if you work hard in school, you can get into college. No one says much about how to pay for it. Even more, many religious communities in the United States prefer individuals who've completed four years of college.
After college, unpaid internships, volunteer programs, and even religious life can seem as if they're only available to those privileged to have made it through school with little to no debt. I know several people who had to turn down unpaid opportunities at organizations and companies where they'd be putting their major to use only to accept entry-level positions where a college degree was optional because the pay was enough to help them afford monthly student loan payments. They then put off trying to work in the fields they are most passionate about (often non-profit or service related work) until they're almost or completely student debt free.
So, maybe a similar thing is happening with religious life. Maybe we can't just blame the so-called "extension of adolescence" for the later age of entry into religious life. Maybe we're refusing to consider the full complexity of the decline in numbers when we assume (unfairly) that young people are just too influenced by the materialism and individualism to be bothered to discern religious vocations.