Watch out, Christians! Sending your kids to college may mean sending them to hell. That has been the standard wisdom since the 1920s. One sociologist now suggests that this is no longer true.
The notion that college might lead children to abandon their faiths has been a staple of conservative thinking for a long time. In the 1920s, conservative leader William Jennings Bryan warned of the dangers of mainstream higher education. Bryan drew on the work of scholar James H. Leuba. Leuba’s 1916 book The Belief in God and Immortality suggested that eighty-five percent of college freshmen described themselves as believers. Only fifty-five percent of graduates did. The conclusion, Bryan warned, was clear. College was turning children away from God.
As usual, fundamentalist firebrand T.T. Martin expressed the idea more colorfully. In a 1923 book, Martin quoted one former college student’s complaint: “My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned. . . . I wish I had never been to college.”
As I argued in my 1920s book, this sort of anxiety about the results of mainstream higher education led fundamentalists to open their own network of colleges, universities, and seminaries. My current research looks at the twentieth-century history of these schools. How did they hope to give students a “college experience” different from the kind on tap at Harvard, Yale, and State U? How did they hope to educate students who were conservative about the Bible, about evolution, and about gender roles? Certainly, since the 1920s, these concerns have remained central to conservative evangelical Protestants. Such folks have continued to hope that righteous colleges can crank out righteous Christians.
But according to a story in Religion News Service, one recent sociological study suggests that the college trend may have turned. Sociologist Philip Schwadel has argued that people born between 1965 and 1980, “Generation X,” no longer have a correlation between college education and abandoning faith. Because so many more people are going to college, Schwadel argues, there is no longer a correlation between higher education and personal secularization.
In other words, college no longer seems to be turning people away from their faiths. For people born in the 1970s, those WITHOUT a college degree were more likely to abandon their faiths. That’s right: for folks born in the 1970s, having a college degree made them more likely to retain their youthful religion.
Of course, as with any academic study, Schwadel’s is carefully wrapped in layers of caveats. This study does not say anything about people born in the 1980s or later. They simply haven’t had enough time to form their adult identities. Nor does it claim that it has firmly proven the fact that college no longer moves people away from their childhood faiths.
But the correlation is fascinating. Schwadel offers a few suggestions about why this change may have taken place. First of all, more and more people in this age cohort went to college. That means there is less and less elitism associated with a college degree. Also, there is more religion on college campuses, Schwadel writes. People can combine their “educated” adult identities with a “religious” identity firmed up in religious student groups. Finally, as more and more college-educated people attend church, those without college degrees might feel socially unconnected. Beyond theology, that sort of mundane social-connection may contribute to people leaving their churches.