New Study: College Makes Students Less Religious

Though freshmen may come to college with religious perspectives and traditions they wish to pursue, a new study indicates that students become substantially less religiously engaged during their first year of college.

The nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core surveyed nearly 8,000 college students across 122 college campuses. The study gauged students’ religious engagement and experiences related to interfaith engagement and religious diversity on campus.

Findings were released earlier this January, and might spell concerns for any parents who value religion and religious engagement with any faith.

More than 90 percent of students indicated that they have respect for people with different religious perspectives than their own, and 85 percent said that they even “admire” people of other faiths and beliefs. But despite these values that students professed, their actions told a different story.

After the first year of college, students’ religious engagement noticeably decreases, the study found. Many stop going to church, and if they do continue to go, they go much less often. Interfaith engagement takes a particularly hard hit, dropping by nearly 20 percent during the first year of college.

Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University, told PJ Media that the findings come as no surprise. Routledge has researched how religion helps people find meaning for the past decade, and has published his research in both popular press and in academic journals.

Students becoming less religiously engaged during college is natural, Routledge says.

“Religion ... has a reputation as being for old people, stuffy, and traditional. So it typically doesn’t seem very exciting to students,” he told PJ Media. However, he added that some students may stop going to church because they feel “discouraged” by the campus culture.

This isn’t exactly a bad thing. “For the most part, I think it is perfectly healthy. People need to be able to freely explore ideas and grow as individuals. And young people have to figure out a lot of other things,” says Routledge.

But for some students, religion can serve as a “valuable resource,” Routledge says.

Campus and local religious organizations “provide opportunities for students to make new social connections, which can be helpful as many freshmen feel homesick, lonely, and anxious about school and their futures,” Routledge told PJ Media.

“The right religious support systems can also help students stay focused and motivated as well as benefit mental health, which can help them find more success in the classroom and beyond,” he added.

Many students do just fine without practicing religion or being part of religious community in college. But, he warns, “we shouldn’t ignore the many benefits social and behavioral scientists have found to be associated with religious faith and behavior.”

You can follow Routledge on Twitter: @ClayRoutledge. The study published by the Interfaith Youth Council can be found here.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen