Parsing Santorum's Statistic on God and College: Looks as if It's Wrong

March 11, 2012

Are America's colleges and universities atheist factories? You might think they are if you have been listening to Rick Santorum recently. Both on television and on the campaign trail he has repeated the claim that "62 percent of kids who enter college with some kind of faith commitment leave without it." There is some debate about the source of this statistic, but even if there is a modicum of truth to it, religious Americans have a right to be concerned. Do students walk away from religious faith when they enter the hallowed halls of the academy? Is college the enemy of faith?

Thankfully we don't have to take this statistic "on faith," as the comedian Stephen Colbert recently suggested we do. A number of social scientists have been examining religious commitment and higher education in recent years, and what we can conclude about higher education mostly contradicts the picture that Santorum paints.

But first, let's try to get to the bottom of Santorum's pronouncement. PBS recently reported that the statistic came from a 2007 study published in the journal Social Forces. I am not sure whether PBS actually confirmed this with the Santorum campaign, but I would be surprised if this were actually the source, given that the study unambiguously concludes that postsecondary education has almost nothing to do with declines in religious practices among young adults. It's more likely that Santorum's statement is related to a view that has floated around the conservative religious world for more than a decade: More than half of all young people lose their faith in college. Popular books for conservative Christian parents and their collegebound children have boldly made this claim, and numerous Christian blogs and evangelical Web sites and radio programs have repeated it. This is not new information for many concerned Christian parents. It's also completely wrong.

As far as I can tell, the source of this misinformation comes from a dissertation written by Gary Railsback, dean of the school of education at Point Loma Nazarene University. Railsback, using respected data from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that 34 percent of students enrolled in public universities who identified as "born again" as entering freshmen said they no longer used that label, and 28 percent said they no longer attended religious services, when surveyed four years later. Putting aside the troubling practice of equating religious commitment (or even Christianity more specifically) with the label "born again," it is not clear that these data actually tell us anything useful about the impact of college on religious identity, belief, and practice.

The problem is this: How do we know that the college experience itself had anything to do with these declines in religious commitment? We know that some measures of religious belief, and quite a few measures of religious practice, decline as young people move from adolescence to emerging adulthood. In order to decide if blame should be laid at the feet of higher education, we need representative data that follow the religious trajectories of young people as some head off to college and others do not.

And this is precisely what we have. Studies using comparable data from recent cohorts of young people (for example, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and the National Study of Youth and Religion) have found virtually no overall differences on most measures of identity, practice, and belief between those who head off to college and those who do not. The one exception to this is the consistent finding that college graduates attend religious services more frequently than those who do not graduate from college.

This doesn't settle the matter, though. As is often the case with social-science findings, there are many exceptions and caveats. And there are some differences in student religious trajectories that appear to depend on the religious affiliation of colleges attended. For example, both evangelical colleges and public institutions tend to curb the decline in church attendance while Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant institutions are more likely to exacerbate it.

Over all, though, this is good news for the faithful. College is clearly not the enemy of religion. Students are not abandoning their faith commitments because of their godless college professors. Still, I have little hope that misinformation about higher education will cease being spread in religious circles. Making an enemy of the academy has long been a useful method for mobilizing religious conservatives. Sadly, it's unlikely that many who need to hear this good news will be listening.

Jonathan P. Hill is an assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College.