Conventional wisdom would have most of us believe that attending college strengthens students’ liberal beliefs and diminishes their religious beliefs. This idea is not lost on the church. In recent years the Catholic Identity College Guide’s list of faithful schools has swelled from 4 or 5 to 38 as alternatives to secular education. Indeed, previous research supports this hypothesis. Sources here and here. The university appears to be a place where young people’s minds are opened and broadened to humanity and secular coexistence. But not all researchers agree with this.
In Social Forces, vol. 90, no. 1 (September 2011), pp. 181-208, Damon Maryl and Jeremy E. Uecker published “Higher Education and Religious Liberalization among Young Adults.” In this study they seek to test this hypothesis using a more robust methodology than previous researchers have utilized. Their results are rather remarkable and surprising. They sum up their main point thusly (p. 199-200):
First, and most importantly, contrary to longstanding scholarly wisdom, attending college appears to have no liberalizing effect on most dimensions of religious belief. In fact, on some measures, college students appear to liberalize less than those who never attended college. College students are less likely to stop believing in the propriety of conversion attempts. On the other hand, they are more likely to develop doubts about their religious beliefs. In the main, however, the effect of college on students’ religious beliefs appears to be extremely weak. Although significant minorities of emerging adults become more liberal in their religious beliefs, college itself does not appear to be the culprit. College students do not liberalize any more than those who do not go to college.
Usually I follow up these block quotes with “In other words…” but I don’t feel this one needs much explanation.
In another significant — but not unexpected — result, the researchers find that we can explain liberalization on other factors: Social ties, particularly religious ties. The study suggests that the less religiously diverse a social network and the more often a person attends church, the less likely it is they will develop liberal beliefs. The more important variable here is church attendance, which is to be expected; the church offers predictability.
In one of the more surprising findings, which was addressed above in the block quote, “college appears to have a somewhat protective effect on conservative Protestant students’ beliefs” (p. 201). The researchers aren’t exactly sure why this appears to be the case, but they offer a few hypotheses, including one that places cause squarely on Protestant teachings. I’ll offer my own hypothesis below.
My father blames my liberal beliefs on my education. He seems to have an idea in his head that all college professors have a political agenda to make conservative Christians turn liberal atheists (he watches a lot of Bill O’Reilly). While he doesn’t shun me for my beliefs, he thinks he knows just who to blame for them. In contrast, however, I became a vegan while in the US Navy, which necessarily means I developed my beliefs about animals while surrounded by conservative men who would certainly mock my beliefs. I learned to be at least partially liberal in a very non-liberal environment. Whatever liberal beliefs I have came not from my university, but from something else. As a matter of fact, and to contradict my father further, I developed more right winged ideas in the university after looking at the evidence. For example, I’m a firm believer in nuclear energy because I understand the role it plays — not only in our society — but also in our environment.
In regards to conservative Protestant beliefs being somewhat protected in college, I have my own thoughts on that, but without proper studies I’ll confess that I’m just guessing. It appears to me that the university has long changed from a place to express and challenge ideas to a place where all ideas must be respected. Students no longer challenge young earth creationists attending Physics 103/104 who assert that the universe is X,000 years old. They instead accept a differing viewpoint, no matter how wrong that point is. And as I learned firsthand, the easiest way to piss off the student body is to say something critical of Islam.
But what I find most socially interesting about this study is that the next time someone blames “Liberal colleges and professors” for an electorate decision, show them this study, and maybe they’ll shut the hell up.
This post is a part of my Science Sundays series.