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College Attendance and its Affect on faith: A Historical Perspective

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[Originally published as Another Study Shows College Does Not Erode Faith – For Most Christians]

In 2013 I discussed a study that indicated a college education makes a person more likely to retain his or her faith. Another study on essentially the same topic was published in the same academic journal. It looked at data in a different, highly interesting way, but its conclusions generally support those of the previous study.

The author, Dr. Philip Schwadel, used a well-known data set called the General Social Survey (GSS) for the years 1973 to 2010. He then looked at the years in which the respondents were born. He found that he had plenty of data for people born after 1900 and before 1980, so he focused on them. This gave him 38,251 people to analyze, which is an excellent sample size.

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In the GSS, the people are asked what their religious preference is: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion. They are also asked about their education and what kinds of degrees they have. Dr. Schwadel wanted to determine whether or not a college degree had any effect on a person answering “no religion.”

He found that people who were born from 1900 to 1964 were more likely to say they had no religion if they had a college degree. However, the amount by which they were more likely to say that dropped fairly steadily from 1915-1964. For those born in 1965, a college degree had no effect on whether or not they answered “no religion.” After 1965, having a college degree made a person less likely to indicate they had no religion. As the author says:1

Results from hierarchical age-period-cohort models using more than three and a half decades of repeated cross-sectional survey data demonstrate that the strong, positive effect of college education on reporting no religious affiliation declines precipitously across birth cohorts. Specifically, a bachelor’s degree has no effect on non-affiliation by the 1965–69 cohort, and a negative effect for the 1970s cohorts.

If we dig a bit deeper into the study, however, we find something even more interesting.

Religious Affiliation Influences

The GSS also asked the respondents if they were raised with a religious affiliation. They could choose mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant (i.e., conservative Protestant), Catholic, black Protestant, Jewish, other religion, or no religion. Schwadel chose to analyze those who were raised mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, or with no religion. For all of them, the general trend was the same – those born in earlier years had an increased chance of reporting no religion if they had a college degree. However, that effect declined the more recently the person was born.

Even though the effect declined for all four groups, there was a startling difference among them. For those raised with no religious affiliation or raised evangelical Protestant, if they were born after 1965, a college degree made them less likely to report no religion, which is consistent with the data set as a whole. However, that wasn’t the case for those raised in mainline Protestant or Catholic traditions. For them, even those born in the 1970s still had a slightly larger chance of reporting no religion if they had a college degree.

So what does this tell us? Well, if the data and analysis are correct, and if the findings can be generalized, the most important take-home message is that college is not the enemy of religious faith that it once was. At one point in history, going to college made you less likely to practice a religion. Nowadays, however, that isn’t true for the population as a whole. Instead, a college education encourages practicing a religious faith. That finding, of course, is consistent with the study I discussed previously.

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At the same time, however, the way you were raised does have an effect. If you were raised with no religion, a college degree now makes you more likely to start practicing a religion. If you were raised evangelical Protestant, the effect is the same. However, if you were raised mainline Protestant or Catholic, a college degree makes you slightly less likely to practice a religion.

I am not sure exactly what to conclude from those who were raised mainline Protestant or Catholic. However, the fact that a college degree now makes those raised with no religion more likely to practice a religion as an adult supports what I said when I discussed the previous study. As far as I am concerned, 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 believe, even if they weren’t raised with a religious belief.

For more information on what it takes for a young person to hang onto their faith, see Young People Catching a Vibrant Faith for God.


  1. Philip Schwadel, “Birth Cohort Changes in the Association Between College Education and Religious Non-Affiliation,” Social Forces doi:10.1093/sf/sou080, 2014

Dr. Jay Wile

Written by Jay Wile

As a scientist, it is hard for me to fathom anyone who has scientific training and does not believe in God. Indeed, it was science that brought me not only to a belief in God, but also to faith in Christianity. I have an earned Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in nuclear chemistry and a B.S. in chemistry from the same institution.

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