College Graduates Less Likely to Abandon Religion, Research Shows

June 6, 2007

AUSTIN, Texas—College graduates are more likely to maintain their religious beliefs and practices than those who never attend college, new research at The University of Texas at Austin has found.

The findings are detailed in a study titled "Losing My Religion" in the June issue of the journal Social Forces.

Researchers found four-year college students and college graduates are the least likely to curb church attendance, to say religion is less important in their lives, or to completely disassociate from religion. Young adults who do not pursue a college degree are the most likely to abandon their faith.

"Many people assume college is public enemy number one for religion," Mark Regnerus, assistant professor of sociology and author of the book "Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers," said. "But we found young adults who don't experience college are far more likely to turn away from religion."

The evolution of campus culture might explain the surprising results, Regnerus said. As more universities shift attention and resources from liberal arts to professional programs, students are increasingly sheltered from philosophical questions or debates that challenge their beliefs. When they are challenged, they can gain support from campus religious organizations and like-minded peers.

"Religion and spirituality are becoming more accepted in higher education, both in intellectual circles and in campus life," Jeremy Uecker, graduate student and lead author of the study, noted. "Religious students are encountering a much less hostile environment than in years past."

Additional findings:

  • Married young adults attend church at higher rates than singles and are more likely to maintain their religious beliefs.
  • While 70 percent of young adults attend church less often than they did during adolescence, only one-fifth say religion is less important and only one in six abandon religion completely.
  • Jews, Catholics and black Protestants, whose religion is often closely tied to cultural heritage, are the least likely to drop out of their religion, as are women, Southerners and young adults whose parents are still married.
  • Adolescents who have smoked marijuana are more than twice as likely to drop their religious affiliation. The odds of abandoning religion increase by nearly 50 percent for young adults who have smoked marijuana at some point since adolescence.

The researchers analyzed 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.

For more information contact: Mark Regnerus, assistant professor, Department of Sociology, 512-232-6307; Tracy Mueller, public affairs specialist, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404.