Christian Smith & Patricia Snell answer the following question in their book (2009). Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults . Oxford University Press, USA.
Does going to college cause the religious and spiritual lives of 18- to 23-year-olds to weaken or decline?
However, something very interesting emerged when scholars took a second look at the question more recently. They found that the religiously undermining effect of higher education on recent generation of youth has disappeared . Most of the older research was conducted on baby boomers, for whom College did indeed seem to tend to corrode religious faith and practice. But many studies more recently have shown that the conventional wisdom about boomers does not apply to today’s youth. Higher education no longer seems to diminish the religion of emerging adults. One recent study, for instance, using some of the best longitudinal data available, has shown that it is not those who attend college but in fact those who do not attend college who are the most likely to experience declines in religious service attendance, self- reported importance of religion, and religious affiliation. Another showed that among recently surveyed college students, 2.7 times more report that their religious beliefs have strengthene1 during their college experience than say their beliefs weakened. Yet another investigation suggests that emerging adults’ religiousness does not vary with educational achievement. Another study specifically focused on Catholic college students draws the same conclusion. Yet another sophisticated investigation has found no secularizing effect of college on the latest college graduates and concludes that the data suggest that “secularization as a result of college attendance may be waning. . . . The overarching trend seems to be that educational attainment may have been related to some forms of religious decline in the past, however this is less the case for recent college graduates.”
If all of this is true—and it certainly seems to be—then this change represents a major shift in the role of higher education in American religion. According to one metaanalysis of the relevant literature, that clearly perceptible change appears to have begun in the 1990s. But what caused it? Multiple, interactive factors seem to have worked together to produce this historic transformation.
1. One factor seems to be a growing influence of campus-based religious and parachurch groups that provide alternative plausibility structures for sustaining religious faith and practice in college.
2. Another is that colleges and universities themselves seem to be changing their attitudes and programs in ways that are more supportive of the religious and spiritual interests of their students.
3. Yet another part of the explanation may be an apparently growing number of committed evangelical and Catholic faculty who are teaching in secular American colleges and universities, providing role models to religious students of ways to combine higher learning and religious faith.
4. Another factor is the growth of religious colleges and universities that train their believing students to integrate faith and learning and to go on to influence the larger society and culture.
5. Still another causal influence could, ironically, be the major long-term decline in American college students’ interest in answering questions about the meaning of life—which the dominant worldview of higher education over much of the twentieth century would have replied to with largely secularist answers—and the concomitant long-term increase in college students’ interest in becoming financially very well off, which to many students is a religiously neutral matter.
6. Also relevant is the influence of post- modern relativism in the academy, especially in the 1990s, which undercut the authority of positivism, epistemological foundationalism, and scientism, all of which historically have tended strongly to marginalize and disparage religion.
7. More broadly, adolescents today are generally quite conventional, and specifically so with regard to religion—less rebellious, for instance, than they were during the baby boom generation—and so are generally content to continue in the faith traditions in which they were raised, however much that faith may or many not mean to them.
8. And at a very general level, American culture and perhaps Western culture seems to have shifted from a secular to a postsecular era in which secularist assumptions are no longer simply taken granted but are rather on the table for questioning, and religion is increasing considered a legitimate subject of discussion—a cultural shift that has much affected contemporary youth.
Through the influence of these and other factors, American higher education seems to have become an environment and experience that is less corrosive than it was in the past of college student religiousness. Indeed, some researchers conclude from their fieldwork on religion at college campuses that at least certain campuses have actually become “a breeding ground for vital religious practice and teaching. (pp. 248-250)
They go on,
Our findings, based on NSYR data, about the influence of college on the religious faith of emerging adults confirm those of recent studies. Which the transition from the teenage to the emerging adult years does entail an overall decline in religious involvement, as we have shown, attending college per say does not an experience that particularly contributes to that decline. For instance, consider the findings presented in figure 8.7, which compares religious measures for emerging adults currently in college with those not currently in college. We see there are very little differences in overall religiousness attendance, professed importance of faith, and frequency of prayer and reading scripture. In every case, emerging adults currently in college are slightly more religious than those who are not in college, although only the differences in overall religiousness and service attendance are statistically significant. In short, if anything, it is not attending college that is associated with lower 1evlels of religious practice, though those differences are slight. This is confirmed by the fact, revealed in ancillary analyses (not shown), that more highly religious youth did not select into college in the first place and then decline in religiousness to the levels shown in figure 8.8, which would have indicated a secularizing effect of higher education. Furthermore, our analysis of religious differences between emerging adults who have ever attended college (not simply currently enrolled) versus those who have not reveals identical findings—those who ever attended college are slightly more religious but not often statistically significantly so. (pp. 250-251)
In short, for contemporary emerging adults, going to college does not increase the “risk” of religious decline or apostasy as it did in the not-too distant past. Some evidence now even suggests that it may actually decrease that risk, compared to not attending college. (p. 251)
Lee, J. J. (2002). Religion and College Attendance: Change among Students. Review of Higher Education, 25(4), 369–384.
Arnett, J. J., & Jensen, L. A. (2002). A Congregation of One: Individualized Religious Beliefs Among Emerging Adults. Journal of Adolescent Research, 17(5), 451–467.
Dillon, M. (1996). The Persistence of Religious Identity among College Catholics. Journal for the scientific study of religion., 35(2), 165.