There is a popular notion of higher education being a “faith killer” – that college has a profoundly negative effect on students’ religious beliefs. New research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, however, suggests a more complicated relationship between faith and a college degree.
In a new study, Nebraska sociologist Philip Schwadel found that the strength of students’ religious beliefs before college has an enduring, positive effect on their religiosity in adulthood. While going to college is connected to a slight decline in prayer, religious certainty and belief, higher education does not appear to affect other aspects, such as frequently going to church, he found.
That’s because students who are more likely to attend religious services as teens are more likely to go to college than their secular counterparts, and the college-educated in America go to church more often than those without a degree.
The study also found that those students who identify as more religious than their peers are choosing “non-elite” institutions – those outside the Top 100 in major rankings – while their less-religious counterparts tend to choose more elite institutions.
“Religious kids are moderately more likely to go to college, and they’re more likely to go to non-elite colleges in particular, and those colleges are less likely to have the negative effects that people think college has on religiosity,” Schwadel said.
The study also found that those who graduate from Top-50 institutions report lower levels of belief than other emerging adults. However, he noted those students are also less religious as teens.
The paper, which appeared in a recent edition of The Sociological Quarterly, continues Schwadel’s work in understanding the effects of higher education on religiosity. Using the National Study of Youth and Religion, a longitudinal survey of more than 3,000 respondents between the ages of 13 and 29, the research uncovered new relationships between religious beliefs before and after college.
Schwadel, professor of sociology and a national expert in the area, said these new findings should better inform the debate – both in academia and in popular culture – about higher education’s role in religious beliefs.
“College appears to have a moderate, negative effect on religious belief, prayer and certainty,” he said. “Nonetheless, the college educated as a whole are not less religious than the non-college educated, and they are instead more likely than the non-college educated to attend religious services.”