Do Secular Colleges Destroy Young Christians’ Faith?

I recently received an e-mail asking about the impact of secular vs. Christian colleges on Christian’s faith. Specifically, the person asking the question had been told that the data are “irrefutable:  secular colleges have a tremendously detrimental effect on the faith of college students” and he wanted to know if this is true.

My first thought is that this is a difficult question to answer because of selection issues. That is, if students in Christian colleges have more Christian beliefs, actions, and affiliation, is it because a) Christian colleges promoted their faith while secular colleges hinder faith or b) the students who go to Christian colleges are more devout in the first place.

What do you think? Do you know of any studies that have looked at this?

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  • You are right about the selection bias with respect to those who go to religious versus secular colleges. But there is another obvious bias at work here if you just look at latitudinal data of only college students. Most people who go to college are between 18-22 years old. Young people throughout history are notorious for not practicing religion, especially young men. I think it would be wise to compare those who go to a religious college with young people who don’t go to college but move out of their parents’ house.

  • George

    I acutally have a graduate student whio wants to look at why some Christians lose their faith when they go to college. So I would be interested in any research people bring up in this post.
    I do know from my study on atheists that those who grew up in religious households tend to experience something in college that contributes to them losing their faith. I think there is also evidence that shows that for some individuals going to college can strengthen their faith.
    So I am open to the possibility that something in college can influnce non-faith but I do not think it is inevitable and there likely are other factors that make some more predisposed to lose their than than others. So I suspect that it is a complicated question. At times college will contribute to a loss of faith and at other times it forces a person to think through their faith and it becomes stronger.

    • Hi – this area has been a lifetime study for me. My dissertation on the topic is on my website ( under Stats/Studies – I used a pre-post measure of 16,000 students at 133 colleges in my study through the Higher Education Reseach Institute at UCLA. Overall measures are 52 to 75% (depending on the type of non-Christian college) of all students who attend a public or secular college no longer identify themselves as a Christian or (even if they still call themselves a Christian) have not attended any religious services off campus in the last year. Comparatively only a small percentage of students who attend a Christian college have a drop (less than 5% if I recall correctly). Holding everything else constant, there is a high degree of correlation between faith loss and type of college. I’d be glad to talk about this with anyone. In fact, this Saturday (10/6) at 8am CT Moody Radio (out of Chicago) is sponsoring a debate on this. I will be a participant. Thanks.

  • …and I think you also need to look at the data longitudinally as well, looking at the rate at which college graduates return to the church after leaving college and having families. It is not as if secular colleges are nuclear bombs that destroy religious practice once and for all. It is merely that when you are 19 years old and in a dormitory, your Saturday evening activities make it difficult to get up for services on Sunday. When the partying stops, you have a bit more time to get to bed early.

  • …and you need a political scientist on this blog!

  • Mark Regnerus

    I know a scholar who’s written on this topic…

    And a more scholarly piece in Social Forces, entitled “Losing My Religion”.

    In fact, the SSRC forum on religion and higher education has a variety of accessible and helpful pieces here. At:

  • Dave Westlake

    Speaking from my own experience having grown up Catholic the more I learned about the Church and it’s history the more disillusioned I became with the institution. The child sex abuse is simply the latest in a long history of the institution being more important than the people or God himself. The church murdered and maimed thousands during the inquisition for acts as simple as translating the bible from Latin to the common language. The “holy office of the inquisition” never really ceased to exist it was simply renamed several times. The current Pope was head of the latest iteration prior to his election. After WWII several high ranking priests were actively engaged in creating new identities for Nazi war criminals and helping them escape to South America. I seriously doubt this could have happened without the knowledge and consent of the Vatican if not Pope Pius himself. In my little world it was fairly obvious that the parish priest where I grew up was shacking up with the rectory housekeeper. Most of the parish looked the other way. Most refused to think it could be possible.

    So how could I possibly be disillusioned with Catholicism?

  • This blog at First Things has a direct answer, , Education Doesn’t Erode Faith, and quotes Mark’s paper, which he pointed to already.
    God is good

  • Emma

    For me, the problem starts with the question: it seems to be rooted in a weird fear that I think a lot of Christian parents have for their kids, and it drives me a little crazy. I’m not a parent, and I am a Christian who went to a secular university, and whose siblings all went to secular universities, so that doesn’t really make me completely unbiased.

    But this sort of questions demonizes the outside world and replaces it with the idea that sending your kids to a Christian college or university will inoculate them from the “unsafe ideas” that will tear their faith to shreds and replace them with the correct, Christian ones. And I don’t buy that. And I also think it’s just wrong, actually. I don’t think belief and faith are about protection and safety nets.

    And I also think that regardless, secular universities and colleges *need* Christian students, regardless of whether they are mature or sure of their belief system or not. And Christian students need to be in contact with people who are not Christians, and spend time in unChristian environments generally. So it’s a mutual need.

    So that doesn’t exactly answer the question, I guess, but that’s my take on it, and I feel pretty strongly about it, knowing several people in my life who became Christians as a result of a Christian student presence at secular colleges and universities.

  • marika

    I think it very much depends on the college and the individual … personally I found my faith at a secular college, but that was 25 years ago, and the culture has changed considerably. I think what is a greater danger to faith (of college age kids and your average person in the pew) is that faith is supposed to be easy, natural and that everything is based on feelings (as a campus minister I often ask something along the line of “what do you think about ….” and invariably the answer comes back with “well, I feel …” (sigh)

  • Bookworm

    I’m the heart broken mother of a son who went to University as a believer and after the first year told us that he could not longer continue in the faith that he was brought up in. He’s a gifted debater and his comment does give him problems: we raised him in a way that introduced him to God but were very clear that being raised in a Christian home does not make you a Christian. It had to be HIS decision to take up his cross and follow Christ. He did – by God’s wonderful grace – and became a very convincing defender of the faith amongst students and online. He was baptised when he was 18 years old and brought his unbelieving friends to the baptism. He managed to secure a place in one of the top uni’s in the world, but it all went down hill from there. Partying, drinking, unbelieving friends and suddenly he was too tired for church and spent all of Sunday morning and most of the afternoon sleeping off the night before. The church he attended combatted this by having a late afternoon service for students (I guess they had encountered this problem before then!), but after a couple of visits he made the excuse that the church was too big, he didn’t know anyone there, it was boring, he was busy, he had work to do – and did I have any clue how much work he had to do? So he stopped going to church. He started drinking…not to excess he tells me, although there was that ‘one time’ when I rang him and had a very confusing conversation with him – so confusing that I even had to ask if it was him on the phone. He was drunk and the next day very embarrassed – he thinks (or used to think) getting drunk was stupid, so to be caught drunk was a humiliating experience for him. Then came the friends, the parties and soon he refused to come to christian conferences with our family, stopped coming to our church during the holidays (too busy revising…) and then eventually said he could not longer believe. Now he doesn’t have to make excuses because if you don’t believe you obviously aren’t going to make any kind of effort to get to church. His latest comment is ‘maybe I’m just not elected.’ If you read this please pray for my son…just say, ‘Lord I’m praying for the persistent mother’s son…’ The Lord will know who you’re talking about! 🙂

  • Bookworm

    I have also concluded that it is not the Uni that was the cause of my son leaving the faith – there is a good Christian Uni where he is and he met with a group of them BEFORE he even got there, and one of them met up with him in his first week there. My son says he cannot continue because there are questions he can’t answer about God….then when we got right down to it he said that actually it wasn’t so much that he had questions but rather objections. He doesn’t like God very much.

    (Please do not publish my email address on this post or my former one – thanks very much for your article)