College is often portrayed as a place where students lose the faiths in which they were raised. Book such as God and Man at Yale have argued that professors challenge the beliefs of students of faith. For those born in much of the 20th century, it was true that college graduates of all ages were significantly less likely than others to report any religious affiliation.
But research just published in the journal Social Forces (abstract available here) finds that, starting for those born in the 1970s, there was a reversal in this historic trend. For that cohort, a college degree increases the chances that someone will report a religious affiliation.
"College education is no longer a faith-killer," said Philip Schwadel, author of the paper and associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Schwadel's research is based on data from the General Social Survey, a large-scale database in which people responded to various questions from 1973 through 2010. Schwadel grouped answers on religious affiliation in "age period cohort models" in which he compared responses from those born in various decades or periods. People were surveyed at a variety of ages, not just while in college, when many people experiment with various ideas and abandon various others. Schwadel's goal was to look at long-term trends. (For that reason, it's too soon, he said, to see if the findings remain true for those born in the 1980s or later).
The question survey respondents answered was simply whether they had a religious affiliation; there was no test of observance attached. Type of college wasn't asked, so there are no results that relate to whether someone attended a religious vs. a secular college.
The data set had information on those born as early as 1900, and Schwadel said that the evolution of the impact on college attendance was gradual, with those who were born early in the 20th century who were college graduates much less likely to have religious affiliation than those without a college education. For those born in the '60s, there was no impact one way or the other. And starting for those born in the '70s, the correlation was between a college education and having a religious affiliation.
Schwadel thinks there may be several explanations for the shift. One is that the 20th century saw a significant expansion in the percentage of Americans who go to college, so many groups -- some with strong religious identities -- came to be represented in higher education in ways that were not previously the case.
Further, he said that colleges (religious and secular) are more likely to have many offerings for students of a range of faiths. "There is a lot more opportunity now to maintain religious identity on campus," he said.
Schwadel's new paper builds on his earlier research that also questioned conventional wisdom about the role between education and religion. A paper published in 2011 found that some religious beliefs and practices -- including belief in God and regular prayer -- increase with years of education. That research also found that the more education one has, the less likely one is to hold "exclusivist religious viewpoints" (a belief in a single faith that is better than all others) and to believe the Bible is the literal truth.
Of his new research and his earlier work, Schwadel said that it's time for a more nuanced understanding of the role of a college education and religious identity. "If you are talking about religious affiliation, college campuses are no longer antithetical," he said.