College Makes Students More Religious

According to Inside Higher Ed, that’s what sociologists found when analyzing data from a longitudinal study of more than 10,000 young Americans. Those who went to college were more likely to remain religious than those who didn’t attend college, with 76% of the non-college group reporting a decline in attending religious services, compared to only 59% of those who attended college. As one of the authors notes, this goes against conventional wisdom:

“Actually we’ve just been wrong about this for quite a while,” said Mark D. Regnerus, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the authors of a new study that suggests students who attend and graduate from college are more likely than others to hold on to their faith.

It’s not that colleges necessarily encourage faith, he said, but for all the talk about how intellectuals are out to destroy students’ relationships to their religions and God, the main obstacles to such relationships have to do with maturing and how young people spend their time. “Some kids were bound to lose [their faith] anyway and they do,” Regnerus said. But the evidence suggests that college isn’t responsible.

They do have some findings about factors that reliably push students away from religion, though:

Behavioral factors, he said, are a better way than college status to predict whether young adults will become less religious. Those who don’t have sex before marriage are also those who don’t experience as much of a drop in religious connection. Those who have smoked pot experience more of a drop. Those who increase alcohol consumption during their young adulthood experience more of a drop in religious connection.

Clearly, militant atheists need to spend less time on education, and more time on the critical task of getting college students stoned and laid. Woo! Par-tay!

Kidding aside, there are a whole bunch of factors that could be at work here that might provide alternative explanations for the results. Many of these are probably addressed in the actual study, but I don’t have access to that so I can’t check, but here’s a partial list of suggestions:

  • There are a couple of “chicken and egg” arguments possible, for example, it might be that religious students who attend college are more committed to their religion than those who don’t. Or they might be better prepared for college, and more likely to graduate.
  • You could also have a “chicken and egg” problem in the other direction, with those who didn’t go to college starting out at a higher level of religiosity as measured by things like church attendance, and thuse being hit harder by work responsibilities. A C&E Catholic (that is, one who attends Mass on Christmas and Easter) who remains a C&E Catholic through college would represent no loss of religious committment, while an evangelical who has to work weekends is more likely to register a drop in church attendance.
  • There could be a selection bias problem– there are a lot of religious colleges and universities out there, and it’s conceivable that they’re overrepresented in some way.
  • There could be a problem of sample sizes– if the college-bound group is much larger or smaller than the non-college group, then the results might be a statistical fluctuation. That’s not terribly likely with a starting sample of 10,000, but weirder things have happened.

I’m sure there are others that the bright folks hereabouts can come up with. Anyway, whether the results are flawed or not, it’s food for thought.