College A Faith Killer? Maybe Not Says UNL Researcher

March 2, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

College church service near the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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If you subscribe to the idea higher education can be a “faith killer” for students let loose for the first time on a secular college campus, you might want to think again. A new study by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor suggests college itself usually isn’t what causes students to question their faith. The research shows a strong belief system before college usually means students will hold on to their religion.

In downtown Lincoln, a second floor room transforms from a restaurant into a place of worship. The space has the feel of an old tent revival, with lights strung between posts and chairs instead of pews to sit in. A Christian band warms up as students trickle in for Sunday services.

It’s a campus outreach of Lincoln Berean Church. About 100 students show up for donuts, coffee and fellowship. They come here because they still believe, despite the distractions and temptations of college life.

Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a big smile, college pastor Dan Lehman sets-up tables and chairs for the service.

Lincoln Berean Church college pastor Dan Lehman. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“Even kids that still love their church, whether it’s Lutheran or Presbyterian or fundamental or evangelical, they still love their churches and they still go the church at home, but they’ve had a crisis of faith in the first three years of college,” Lehman said. “Some have greater crises, but some point where they’re going, I don’t know. What if this is all just made up?”

It’s a common question among college students. Higher education has a reputation for tearing down faith and forcing young people to question what they believe and why. But it may not have much to do with what’s taught in college.

Philip Schwadel is a sociology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Contrary to popular belief, he’s found college really isn’t the “faith killer” that some make it out to be. His new research suggests students who arrive at college with strong religious beliefs usually hold onto them.

“Parents and family matter a lot more than college in determining emerging adult religiosity,” Schwadel said.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor Philip Schwadel. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Schwadel used four waves of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, a survey that included 3,200 respondents between the ages of 13 and 29. He says what happens before college is a big factor in determining if students keep their religiosity when they arrive on campus.

“What I’m finding here is there’s something of what we call a selection effect. Those who go to college often differ from those who don’t go to college before they went to college,” Schwadel said. “Their parents are different people. They’re different religiously before they went to college.”

His research does indicate higher education can have a negative effect on certain parts of a student’s religious experience, but it’s not as bad as we’ve been led to believe. One possible reason? College isn’t just for the elite anymore.

“Among more recent generations where it’s become more normative it’s attracting a different crowd and it’s people who aren’t so predisposed to lower levels of religiosity,” Schwadel said.

Back at the church service in Lincoln, Allie Puatu is one of the first to arrive and listens to the day’s message with her church friends. She admits religion and college don’t always mix, but she always finds herself back in church.

Lincoln Berean Church College Worship Hour near the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“When you come to college, there’s a certain point where you want to try new things so you kind of leave your religion or your faith from your family behind for a bit because of the newfound freedom that you have,” Puatu said. “But I think at least for the stories that I know and my story too, I came back immediately and then found more strength and more faith and more independence for it being my own, rather than just my parents.”

Pastor Dan Lehman says he’s not surprised what happens before college is a big factor in whether students hold on to their religious faith. It’s not a bad thing if students question what they believe.

“I get concerned about kids, they move right on through college and yes, what church says, what pastor says, what mom and dad say, it stands and they move on. And I find their faith really just becomes a cultural norm,” Lehman said. “It’s just the way I grew up. It doesn’t become something very powerful within them that steers and directs their thinking in life.”

He smiles as he greets more students arriving for church service, young people who he thinks are doing a pretty good job of keeping the faith.