College students are the least likely to abandon their faith than those who never pursued a college degree, a recent study revealed.
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin found that college attendance appears to prevent young adults from losing their religion, contradicting widely held assumptions that students leave the church or their faith altogether during their college years.
The surprising research went further to find that those who never attended college had the highest rates of decline in church attendance (76.2 percent), diminished importance placed on religion (23.7 percent), and disaffiliation from religion (20.3 percent). Students who earned at least a bachelor's degree, on the other hand, had the lowest rates on those three factors with 59.2 percent indicating decreased church attendance and 15 percent placing less importance on religion and disaffiliating from religion.
"Simply put, higher education is not the enemy of religiosity that so many have made it out to be," researchers wrote in their "Losing My Religion" report which is featured in the June issue of the journal Social Forces.
Many church and youth leaders have expressed wide concern and fears that they are losing the younger generation. Jeff Schadt, coordinator of Youth Transition Network, says thousands of youth fall away from the church when transitioning from high school to college. He and other youth leaders estimate that 65 to 94 percent of high school students stop attending church after graduating.
Some point to the dangers of secular worldviews that are imparted onto students when receiving a college education. David Wheaton, author of University of Destruction calls secular college campuses "the most radical aspect of society" with many students losing their understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
"Many people assume college is public enemy number one for religion," said Mark Regnerus, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.
"But we found young adults who don't experience college are far more likely to turn away from religion," he highlighted.
About 62 percent of Evangelical Protestant young adults attend a religious service less often than they did as adolescents, the latest study showed. But far fewer (19 percent) indicated a decline in the importance of religion and even fewer (16 percent) disaffiliated from religion.
Only religious participation suffers substantial declines in young adulthood, researchers noted.
Groups that are least likely to drop out of their religion are Jews, Catholics, black Protestants, women, Southerners, young adults whose parents are still married, and married young adults.
Overall, the overwhelming majority (82 percent) of college student maintain at least a static level of personal religiosity in early adulthood and 86 percent retain their religious affiliation.
"Religious faith is rarely seen as something that could either influence or be influenced by the educational process," researchers stated.
One reason researchers provided was that "while higher education opens up new worlds for students who apply themselves, it can, but does not often, create skepticism about old (religious) worlds, or at least not among most American young people, in part because students themselves do not perceive a great deal of competition between higher education and faith, and also because very many young Americans are so undersocialized in their religious faith (before college begins) that they would have difficulty recognizing faith-challenging material when it appears."
Also, universities are no longer viewed as being hostile to religion. Recently, they have been described "not as a breeding ground for apostasy, but as 'a breeding ground for vital religious practice and teaching,'" researchers noted.
Some of the nation's largest campus ministry groups are expanding their campus chapters and exploring new colleges, recognizing the growing interest in religion and spirituality on campuses.
Campus Crusade for Christ spokesman Tony Arnold says there is a "deep hunger for something" in students' lives.
"Losing My Religion" is based on data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which tracked more than 10,000 Americans from adolescence through young adulthood from 1994 to 1995 and from 2001 to 2002.