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Feb 27, 2012

Santorum, Stats, and Dropout Rates of Religious College Students

This past Thursday (February 23), Rick Santorum told talk show host Glenn Beck that "62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it." This statement turned the heads of listeners and media alike. LifeWay Research was quickly contacted by a few major media outlets to verify this statistic. At this time, we can't say that it is true-- or even that going to college has great impact on the dropout rate.

We were not the only ones asking this question but we have a unique interest in the subject having done major research on it. That research was published in Essential Church, a 2008 book by Thom and Sam Rainer.

Although this is not a statement of the "rightness" of his policies, it appears Senator Santorum may have mixed up the numbers on this particular statistic.

There are some studies that point to church dropout percentages, but none we know that indicate a 62% dropout rate due to college attendance (feel free to let us know if you can identify the source).

On the contrary, most of the data does not show that college attendance causes a higher dropout rate-- our data shows no statistically significant difference, but there are other sources of data to consider as well.

For example, one study from the University of Texas looks at the idea that colleges are corrosive to faith.

You can read the report summary here. In it, they claim:

Thus, the assumption that a college education is the reason for such a decline gathers little support. The results remain the same even when we employ multiple regression models to account for other factors that might explain the college-religion relationship (such as age, marriage, drinking habits, and sexual behavior, to name a few). Simply put: Higher education is not the enemy of religiosity. Instead, young people who avoid college altogether display a more precipitous drop in their religious participation...

In conclusion, the college experience--more than the education itself--seems corrosive to religious faith only among those who were at an elevated risk of such corrosion when they arrived on campus.

There is a UCLA study cited in this article that points to such religious decline, though another article on the same study indicates that students become more spiritual in college.

Also, this Harvard study led the Harvard Institute of Politics director to this conclusion: "Religion is not only very important in the lives of college students today, but also religion and morality are critical to how students think about politics and form opinions on political issues,"

The three main academic studies we could locate are these three from the University of Texas, Harvard, and UCLA. They all mention college students leaving the faith, and some of their stats include a "62%," but none match up like Santorum mentioned. Finally, the UT Austin study actually shows that people who attend college are less likely to walk away from the faith than those who don't attend college.

As for LifeWay Research on the issue, we conducted a survey in April and May 2007 of 1,023 adults ages 18-30 to uncover the reasons young people leave church. Each indicated that they had attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year in high school.

Our data showed that among young adults who had attended church regularly for at least a year in high school, 70% stop attending regularly for at least a year between ages 18-22. However, 35% of these had returned to attending twice a month or more by the time they were surveyed for the study.

The article has 2 powerpoint presentations associated with it. The first goes through the dropout rate and the second (slide 45 and following) talks about effects of education.

USAToday reported on this research a few years ago. Thom Rainer was asked about the dropout rate in an article in USAToday that was published this morning.

Long story short: There are dropouts (and returns), but there is no statistical difference that the dropout rate among those who attended college than those that did not attend college.

Thanks to Amy Whitfield for gathering the research on this article.

UPDATE: Thanks to Pat H. in the comments for helping us locate another study published in the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Sociology journal, Social Forces, that further supports our LifeWay Research findings.

The findings of this joint study between researchers at Cal-Berkeley and UNC-Chapel Hill, concluded that "college students are no more likely to develop liberal religious beliefs than non-students. In some cases, collegians actually appear more likely to retain their initial beliefs." You can find the research abstract here.

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Posted:February 27, 2012 at 12:00 am

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Santorum, Stats, and Dropout Rates of Religious College Students