The Effects of College on Religious Practice

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In recent weeks, the campaign rhetoric has included references to the value of higher education and the role higher education plays in the religious formation of its students. I prefer to neither endorse nor critique individual candidates and have already written in past blogs about my assessment regarding the national goals for higher education. Quite frankly, the goal of at least one year of college or other training beyond high school is extraordinarily modest and unlikely to prepare a generation educated to compete globally. If it were up to me, our goal would be for every American to attain a college degree. And even that might not be enough in the coming years.

But the value of college has been questioned in terms of the effects on religious practice. For years I have heard people say that college campuses tend to be full of liberals … whatever that means. My own experience is that college campuses are full of people of all sorts of political, social and religious beliefs.   The profile of the college community has a great deal to do with its mission, values and goals.

People are entitled to their opinions of the value of a college education and the predominant perspectives of those who work in higher education. But the research is consistent that colleges are not more responsible for the loss of faith and the practice of faith. In fact, just the opposite.

The study that has been misrepresented by campaign personnel was published by the Social Science Research Council. It was published in 2007 and is entitled, “ How Corrosive Is College to Religious Faith and Practice?” (Regnerus & Uecker). The following comes directly from this report:

“So what can be said about the religiosity of today’s young adults? As we might expect, recent data from the Add Health study reveals that nearly 70 percent of all young adults who attended church at least once a month during high school subsequently curtailed their church attendance. Contrary to our own and others’ expectations, however, young adults who never enrolled in college are presently the least religious young Americans. The assumption that the religious involvement of young people diminishes when they attend college is of course true: 64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their attendance habits. Yet, 76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance.

Attendance habits are the hardest hit during early adulthood. But some forms of religiosity, like how important religion is in one’s life, witness far smaller declines. More than one in four young adults who avoid college reported lower “religious salience” than when interviewed as adolescents, compared with just 19 percent of young adults pursuing a traditional college education. And then there is religious disaffiliation—when youth no longer identify with any religious affiliation at all. Whereas 20 percent of those that did not pursue college renounced any and all religious affiliation, only 13 percent of four-year college students had done the same.

Thus, the assumption that a college education is the reason for such a decline gathers little support. The results remain the same even when we employ multiple regression models to account for other factors that might explain the college-religion relationship (such as age, marriage, drinking habits, and sexual behavior, to name a few). Simply put: Higher education is not the enemy of religiosity. Instead, young people who avoid college altogether display a more precipitous drop in their religious participation. So if a college education is not the secularizing force we often presume it to be, what is going on?”

For those concerned about the overall levels of religious practice in this country, these statistics are disconcerting. But this research and other studies (e.g., Pew Research) point to explanations more directly related to age, family issues and culture. And college campuses may be the best place for young adults to keep and/or develop their practice of faith.

I would contend that at many colleges, the opportunities to engage in the programs and services of a Campus Ministry Office encourage religious practice. Further, being in classrooms where issues of faith and religious practice can and are openly discussed provides increased opportunity for reflection that may lead towards practice of faith, not away. And finally, attending college with adult role models and peers who value faith and seek ways to live their faith through service and spiritual formation is a positive environment for faith formation.

Colleges can always do a better job. We must accept responsibility for many things. But let us be fair and accurate. Colleges can and do encourage the practice of faith. And you can get a great education too! Your thoughts?

(As always, your comments and ideas are welcome.)

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Guest Saturday, 19 April 2014