A College Education Makes You MORE LIKELY To Retain Your Faith

Those who graduate college are more likely to retain their faith. (Click for credit.)

We’ve all heard the story before: A devout young student graduates from high school and attends college. While he is there, he hears all the arguments against his faith from his secular professors. He is tempted to live the “wild life” that many college students enjoy. He finds that it is easy to do all sorts of things that his parents didn’t allow him to do at home. Pretty soon, his faith is in the rear-view mirror, and by the time he graduates, he has lost it altogether.

While there is no doubt that this story is true for some individuals, it is almost certainly not true for the majority of students. In fact, according to an article discussed by the Geochristian, students who attend college are more likely to retain their faith than those who do not attend college! The article bases its conclusions on two sources: a book published by Oxford University Press and a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Forces.

Since I am always interested in looking at the evidence as directly as possible, I read the study, and it is truly fascinating!

It was based on interviews that took place as a part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). The Add Health interviews took place in several “waves” that were spaced several years apart. In this study, they compared the results of interviews that were done when the students were in secondary school to those that were done when the same students were old enough to have gone to and completed college. They found 15,197 students who had been interviewed in both waves, and they focused on the questions that related to their educational attainment, family status, sexual behaviors, drug use, and faith.

They tried to correlate the importance of faith in the students’ lives to all the other factors. Not surprisingly, the use of drugs correlated to a lessening of the importance of faith, as did living together outside of marriage and sex outside of marriage. To me, however, the fascinating thing was how the students’ faith correlated to their educational attainment. Here are the data the authors report:1

You can see that the majority of students stopped attending services regularly, but less than a quarter of them reported that religion had become less important, and even fewer had disaffiliated from their religion. More importantly, notice that those who did not attend college were the most likely to stop attending services, report that religion was less important in their lives, or disaffiliate from their religion! Indeed, except for one instance (comparing disaffiliated from religion between associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree or higher), the more college education the student had, the less likely he or she was to de-emphasize his or her faith!

As the authors themselves write:

Emerging adults who do not attend college are most prone to curb all three types of religiousness in early adulthood. Simply put, higher education is not the enemy of religiosity that so many have made it out to be.

Now, of course, the authors have some explanations for this “surprising” fact. They say that college is less about intellectual life these days and more about job training. They also say that the nominally religious students don’t really think about how their faith applies to learning and the devoutly religious students expect it to be challenging, so they engage in campus religious groups that help to support them.

I have no doubt that these explanations have something to do with the study’s results. However, I have another explanation that should be added: The vast majority of intellectual and scientific data support a belief in a personal God. Thus, it is not surprising to me that the more people learn, the more likely they are to remain engaged in their faith!

Now please note that this study does not distinguish between those who went to religious colleges and those who went to secular colleges. They simply followed 15,197 students from secondary school through the years when they might have gone to college. No doubt some went to religious colleges, but since only about 8% of all college students attend a religious college,2 I would expect that the vast majority of those in the study who went to college attended a secular one.

I would love to see these data reanalyzed, specifically taking into account whether or not the students went to a secular or religious college. I would expect the conclusions to be roughly the same, but until such a study is done, I can’t say for sure.


1. Jeremy E. Uecker, Mark D. Regnerus, and Margaret L. Vaaler, “Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood,” Social Forces 85(4):1667-1692, 2007
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2. Naomi Schaefer Riley, God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, St. Martin’s Press 2005, p. 7
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8 thoughts on “A College Education Makes You MORE LIKELY To Retain Your Faith”

  1. Also what are they meaning by faith? There are lots of non Bible based faiths out there. Are we talking Born Again Christians or other faiths?

    1. In answer to your question, Moe, they separated the students into the following groups: Evangelical Protestants, Black Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jewish, and “other.” According to their numbers, the Catholics were the most likely to de-emphasize their faith, while the Black Protestants and Evangelical Protestants were the least likely to de-emphasize their faith.

  2. I would love to see this study taken further, and see where each of these students are at at later stages of their life. Age, having children, lifes experiences, end of life, etc are major prompts for reviewing beliefs. Id love to see what happens to the study group after going through these things.

  3. There are other options.

    How about reversed causality: people with a less religious worldview are more likely not to attend/finish college.

    Or in relation to obedience to parents/rules. People who value responsibility or parental approval more are more likely to attend/finish college, attend church and value the religion of their parents.

    It would take more specified research to know whether
    college attendance harmed a persons belief. Maybe the influence of college is a factor in the big declines shown above. Maybe not.

    1. Your point is well taken, Elian. Correlation does not mean causation. However, I do think that the negative statement (“College education harms religious faith”) can be ruled out by this study, as there isn’t even any correlation to support it!

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