College Majors and Church Attendance

Sam Rainer

July 28, 2009


The move to college has long been an exciting time for young adults, and one that is met with mixed emotions from parents. For families of faith, one of the biggest fears is how much negative influence the secular university will have on a young son or daughter.

Our research has debunked the myth that the influence of the secular university pushes young adults out of the church. No significant difference exists between the dropout rates of those who attend at least a year of college and those who do not. For those that attend college, 69% of active churchgoing youth stop attending church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. Yet 71% of active youth who do not go to college stop attending church during the same period.

So overall, the college itself is not to blame for the dropout issue. What about analyzing different majors? New research from the University of Michigan reveals some surprising results on religiosity and the college major. They measure religiosity by religious attendance and how important students consider the importance of religion in their lives. Here are some highlights from the study:

  • The odds of going to college increase for high school students who attend religious services more frequently or who view religion as more important in their lives.
  • Being a humanities or a social science major has a statistically significant negative effect on religiosity.
  • Students in education and business show an increase in religiosity over their time at college.
  • Majoring in the biological or physical sciences does not affect religious attendance of students.

Clearly, we need strong believers in every field of study. So I don’t think it’s wise to shun certain majors (or schools) based simply upon this research. But what are your thoughts about these findings? Are there new reasons to fear the influence of the secular university?

10 comments on “College Majors and Church Attendance”

  1. Rick White says:

    While I think this is an interesting study and I can not question the motive the University of Michigan had for the research, I don’t think it has any real relevance to the question, “Why do kids drop out of church following High School?”

    The church needs to answer this question. But I believe the answer is within the church – not outside it. We for too long have looked for ways to explain the solid fact that a majority of high school graduates stop attending church following graduation. We want to blame the schools, we want to blame the government, we want to blame society. There is more here than that. Is it possible the christian community is not preparing the high school graduate so as to be able to engage the culture while still maintaining the values Christ has taught them?

    A lot of guilt can be associated with answering this question in the affirmative. Especially for Christian parents who insured their children were introduced to the church. Me too. But as I look in a mirror dimly I wonder if we haven’t substituted alternative church and family instruction for something other than the simple Gospel of Christ. There is great strength in the simplicity. And a great ability to engage the culture with it without loosing hope.

  2. Brian Haynes says:

    The college environment is not necessarily the catalyst for church drop out in the transitional years of 18-22. With that I can agree.

    A Christian student should “own” her faith by the time she enters the university setting. Certainly the university provides new challenges to the faith and maybe less spiritual obstacles like self discipline on Sunday morning after a fun night with friends Saturday evening. But, college also provides new opportunities for spiritual growth on a Christian foundation built in the years leading up to adulthood.

    The problem lies in spiritual formation. Who is the student when they arrive on campus? Are they living an authentic life in Christ before they get there?

    The missing link is the family. Why do we have the greatest student ministries and children’s ministries in the history of ecclesiology in America and yet produce a generation with the greatest church drop out rate? The answer lies in the spiritual formation process at home. What did mom and dad do to intentionally and authentically lead their children spiritually.

    If family, by God’s design, is the most important experience in any persons life then it is also the greatest vehicle for spiritual formation (Dt.6:4-9). When the church partners with the home to encourage and equip parents, we will see the numbers change for the positive. Until then, faith will remain inside certain buildings on certain days of the week… and when you leave your familiar building, you leave your faith to an extent.

  3. Benson Hines says:

    Thanks for posting about this. Very interesting, including for us in college ministry!

    A couple of questions:

    Does the research compare those in secular colleges with those in the same majors at Christian colleges? I’m guessing it doesn’t, but that would be interesting.

    More importantly, how many SCHOOLS were included in their study? It seems collegiate research that doesn’t take into account the wide disparity between campuses could end up skewed. Colleges are “double-selective” – whom they select as well as who selects them can create wide differences (as can other factors). So did this study examine a wide cross-section of colleges, or just a large enough number of students at a few colleges?

    Thanks for helping clarify!

  4. Sam Rainer says:

    Benson –

    Great questions. Here’s an explanation of the sample, which shows that it is nationally representative:

    “The data in the study are from the Monitoring the Future Study, a University of Michigan research project that conducts surveys of a nationally representative sample of high school seniors, following a representative sample of them into college.”

  5. Benson Hines says:

    That’s great – thanks. I appreciate that they started with high school for picking the sample; that does help with representativeness. And it sounds like some of these students might have gone to Christian schools, too. Very interesting. Thanks, Sam!

  6. Random says:

    I don’t really think that this should be all that suprising. Most parents and churches do not encourage the questioning that most would-be college students or high school students have. As a result, the teen is left feeling boxed in and jumps to get out of the box when they can. While it doesn’t apply to all teens, it applied to most that I have known. They just didn’t feel that they could be themselves while in the church and that they had to act a certain way or hide their thoughts and questions. It seems to me that the issue is not college or what type of college. The needs of teens are not being met and they don’t feel that church has the answers and doesn’t even want to know the questions. Many churches are simply attempting to make cookie-cutter Christians. The humanities being a negative is an interesting point that I will have to think about, particularly since I was in humanities. Lol. Just my two cents.

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