Investigating the Impact of the College Experience on Religion

College, if nothing else, provides a space for young people to reevaluate their beliefs and values, choosing which to let go of and which to carry with them.

Now more than ever, students are approaching this time of change from a very different perspective than those before them. Over a third of American Gen Zers are currently “religiously unaffiliated,” a trend that, according to the Pew Research Center, keeps them just about on track with Millenials. Among Gen X, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation, however, only 23 percent, 17 percent, and 11 percent respectively say they have no ties to religion.

While overall religious participation is falling for college-age Americans, their religious upbringings—and the beliefs they maintain throughout their undergraduate careers—not only influence their values and decision-making as students but shape what they consider important for their futures.

How does religious identity impact the values of college students? Is there a measurable change in these identities throughout college? Do the values of non-religious students shift in a similar way?

To answer these questions, we took a look at a variety of Marriage Pact questions and analyzed the responses of religious and non-religious Stanford students across different class years. 

Starting off with substance use, and how students of different religious identities view it. On average, Jewish students are the most tolerant of a partner’s use of alcohol and softer drugs, while Muslim students are the least so.

And when it comes to views on sex in romantic relationships, Jewish, agnostic, atheist, and spiritual students believe it’s acceptable to wait a relatively shorter time before having sex, while Muslim and Protestant students believe a longer wait is more appropriate.

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*We omitted religious identities with smaller populations in order to preserve the anonymity of those students.

Next up: religious affiliation itself. Protestant students of all class years say they feel the strongest about their partner’s religious affiliation, while spiritual students say they care the least. 

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To observe if there is a shift in religious identities among students throughout college, we took a look at the differences in values held by students of the same religious affiliations in different class years. Most notably, we found that seniors are more tolerant of alcohol and soft drug use in their partners regardless of religious affiliation, while freshman students are more confident than their older peers that everything will eventually be explained by science.

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While the differences in views surrounding substance use could be representative of a change in religious beliefs or values over the course of a student’s college career, other factors like increased exposure to alcohol over time, aging above the legal limit for alcohol consumption, and distance from parents, guardians, or religious communities may contribute to this as well. 

Similar external influences may influence whether or not students think everything will be explained by science: while the decrease in confidence that everything has a scientific explanation may be indicative of a shift in religious beliefs, it also may be due to students' exposure to increased information through their academics, which may lead to yet more questions that no one has the answers for yet. More and more questions might lead to less and less security that we'll unlock the answers to the universe with a nifty equation and a Bunsen burner.

Interestingly, along with their shift in tolerance surrounding substance use, seniors are more likely to indicate that they have strong feelings about their partner’s religious affiliation. The starkest increases in this belief come from Muslim and Protestant students. This shift may be due in part to older students beginning to more seriously consider the values they wish to share with long-term partners. Younger students, on the other hand, may be less ready for serious commitment and aren’t as concerned with finding a partner that ticks every single box.

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While a significant number of current college students have found themselves unaffiliated with any religion in particular, a religious upbringing and a continued religious identity directly influence the perspectives and world views of college-aged Americans. This identity, alongside many others, is subject to change as students grow and experience new things alongside peers of different backgrounds. It’s unlikely that college as an institution makes students less religious overall. Instead, it gives students the space required to consider what values are important to them as independent human beings, as well as the context in which these values impact their relationships, now and in the future.