See the  Web Resources page for further reading

Read the essays in the SSRC Forum on The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates

SSRC Guide: Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates

1. What Do Students Believe?

Middlebury College
Photo: James P. Blair

A Religious Profile of the American Collegiate Student Body

More than ever, religion has become a hot button topic on college campuses. “Scholars and administrators are noticing that our students are more religious than previous generations of college students, and they don’t have a clear sense of why,” notes Darren Sherkat, a professor at Southern Illinois University.  Mark C. Taylor, a visiting professor in Columbia University’s department of religion, agrees. “More college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching,” he wrote in a New York Times editorial.

The trend goes far beyond the rise in student enrollment at faith-based colleges. Religious students are an increasingly visible presence at both public universities and elite schools across the United States. Increasingly, both mainstream accounts and academic studies are demonstrating that the religious beliefs of college students merit a closer look, as the potential effects on campus life, curricula, enrollment, and student and faculty well-being are considerable.

What do college students believe? A national survey  performed annually by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI)  and findings drawn from an ongoing study of 28 elite universities called the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF),  as well as a number of institution-specific studies have been trying to provide a clear answer to that question.  

HERI found that 83% of students affiliated with some denomination or religion. The NLSF findings reported an even higher number, noting that 88% claim to have at least a nominal religious affiliation. The vast majority of this percentage of students in both surveys hail from Christian denominations. The HERI study also revealed that 79% say they believe in God, and 40% say that it is very important to follow religious teachings in everyday life.

A substantial percentage of students also express belief in the occult. A survey of students at the University of South Dakota and the University of Southern Colorado found that between 25-33% of students indicated a belief in fairies, psychics, contact with the dead, astrology, and clairvoyants. Over half expressed a belief in telepathy.

Recent research has also focused intently on the growing evangelical presence on campuses  across the nation. “Though barely on the radar screen in the 1960s, evangelicals are an unavoidable part of the campus religious landscape today,” says Missouri State University professor John Schmalzbauer.  The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, a religious historian and minister at Harvard, agrees. On his campus, “there are probably more evangelicals than at any time since the 17th century,” he told the Boston Globe in 2003. Indeed, a 2004 Harvard Institute of Politics poll indicated that 35% of college students call themselves “born again,” and 22% identify as evangelical or fundamentalist Christians. Alyssa Bryantdocuments an increase in the percentage of born-again students on college campuses.

What explains the growing awareness of diverse student beliefs and affiliations on campus? Part of the trend can be explained by changes in the student population as a whole. Sherkat’s essay  in our forum notes a number of important demographic changes:

- “over the past five decades there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of the American population who attend college.” Since sectarian groups and Catholics tend to have higher fertility rates, it follows that these groups will occupy a larger share of the college-age demographic.

- “the proportion of African Americans and women earning college degrees has increased dramatically…African Americans and women are substantially more religious than men and Anglo Americans.” A large proportion of degrees are now earned by students who were not part of the college demographic in earlier generations and who tend to have stronger religious affiliations.

Another explanation for the seeming increase in student religiosity may lie in the surveys themselves. As Columbia University professor Courtney Bender  points out, it’s hard to measure the religious engagements of students since what it means to call oneself “religious” has changed dramatically. Indeed, some longitudinal studies reveal that the increase in numbers of students claiming religious engagement is not indicative of a striking upward trend in religious affiliation; rather it highlights the fact that more and more students classify themselves as “spiritual, not religious”  – a category that was not included in earlier surveys.

Scholar Tim Clydesdale  notes that this subtle shift in terms can have a drastic impact. “By framing religion as ‘spirituality,’ this interpretation grants religious life legitimacy as an (optional) component in college student ‘wellness,’ and provides market-savvy colleges with a rationale for expanding support of religious life on their campuses.” he says.

“Survey analyses at best capture only a narrow range of students’ religious and spiritual practices, narratives, identities, and meaningful affiliations,” adds Bender. Ultimately, “what appears from some vantages to be a growing interest in spiritual practice appears from others to be a more complex combination of America’s weakening institutional identifications and our continuing interest in exploring a variety of heterodox spiritual ideas.”

Sam Speers, director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at Vassar, notes that spirituality on campus has become more a matter of “expressive individualism” than of collective affiliation.

For example, Speers says, “a recent national study defines spirituality (with no apparent irony) as what ‘points to our interiors, our subjective life, as contrasted to the objective domain of material events and objects,’” a definition so broad that nearly 80% of student respondents said that it applied to them. “The problem here is the question of how the boundaries of the “spiritual” are to be understood, and of what thus counts as evidence of an increase in spirituality (or secularity, or religiosity).”

Although survey findings provide only a partial insight into the religious commitments of students, what they do indicate is the need for college decision-makers to pay attention to how the religious lives of their students mesh with the values and ideals of their university, say scholars. Bender suggests that college leaders and student life administrators “evaluate how their own institutional cultures, histories and student demographics shape campus-wide understandings of spirituality and religion.”

Whether the shape of student religiosity in college is the result of the college experience or of wider trends in American society, the question of what students believe continues to generate interest for both scholars and administrative decision-makers, as they help students become adequately equipped for life both in and after college.


Further Reading:

Dillon, M. 1996. “The Persistence of Religious Identity among College Catholics.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35(2): 165-170.

Flory, R. W. and D. E. Miller, eds. 2000. Gen X Religion. New York: Routledge.

Harvard University Institute of Politics. 2005. Redefining Political Attitudes and Activism: A Poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Institute of Politics. (Available online at

Higher Education Research Institute. 2004. The Spiritual Life of College Students: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose (Full Report). Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute at University of California, Los Angeles.

Hoge, D. R. 1974. Commitment on Campus: Changes in Religion and Values Over Five Decades. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Hoge, D. R. and J. L. Hoge, et al. 1987. “The Return of the Fifties: Trends in College Students’ Values between 1952 and 1984.” Sociological Forum 2(3): 500-519.

Hollinger, F. and T. B. Smith. 2002. “Religion and Esotericism among Students: A Cross-Cultural Comparative Study.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 17(2): 229-249.

Lee, J. and A. Matzken, et al. 2006. “Understanding Students’ Religious and Spiritual Pursuits: A Case Study at New York University.” Journal of College and Character 2.

Mooney, M. 2005. Religion at America’s Most Selective Colleges: Some Findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF). Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

Swidey, N. 2003. “God on the Quad.” Boston Globe 30 November 2003.

Taylor, M. C. 2006. “The Devoted Student.” The New York Times 21 December 2006, late ed., sec. A: 39.

Wuthnow, R. 1998. After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California, Berkeley.

Wuthnow, R. 2007. After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.