In an article published in the journal Social Forces and reprinted at PhysOrg, Deann Gayman reports that although for many years, higher education has been blamed for the decline of religiosity in the US, this is actually not the case.
In a new study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of sociology Philip Schwadel, he posits that there is a change in how a college education affects religious affiliation.
"There are a lot of articles and books from the '50s, '60s and '70s talking about how the college-educated are the most likely to disaffiliate, or drop out of religion," he said. "Without a doubt, older research showed that highly educated people were more likely to drop out of religion."
Younger, more highly educated generations are making this idea untrue. Schwadel's study gathered data from 38,251 participants to the General Social Survey. He found that a change began for those born after 1940, and the a more dramatic shift occurred for those born after 1960.
"If you were born in the 1910s, '20s or '30s, you are twice as likely as someone without a college education to say that you have no religious affiliation, but that likelihood starts to decline for those people born in the late 1930s," Schwadel said. "By the 1960s, people born in that decade, there is no effect of education on religious disaffiliation."
In fact, he adds, in the younger generations, over the last two decades, it is the less educated who are disaffiliated, by far. Schwadel believes one reason for this is that the number of college-educated Americans has grown. He adds that there are changes in who goes to college and there are more opportunities to maintain your religious affiliation in college today.
"Unless something drastic happens to change this relationship again, I would expect in 50 years, the college-educated would be no more likely, and potentially less likely, to claim no affiliation than the non-college educated," he said.
Millennials, those, between the ages of 18-30, were not included in the survey because most have not yet had time to settle on their religious identity. Cathy Lynn Grossman of the Religious News Service writes about another reason for this shift which Schwadel cites is the fact that churches have changed as well. Because more college-educated people are affiliating with churches, those who do not have college degrees can feel uncomfortable as people want their church to have members like themselves.
Christian Post reporter Michael Gryboski notes that Schwadel said that for contemporary young adults, college degrees did not appear to be associated with declines in religious affiliation, but do appear to be related to a decline in religious beliefs.
He added that it is easy to blame "liberal professors" and the university system for religious decline even though it is somewhat predictable during the college years. Schwadel's study calls for more research to ascertain the possible differences in outcome between those who attend religious institutes of higher learning and those who graduate from public colleges or universities.