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
Recent studies of college students' attitudes toward religion suggest that the academy is no longer the bastion of secularism it was once assumed to be. And these studies further reveal that the spiritual landscape on today's college campuses is virtually unrecognizable from what we've seen in the past. Evangelicalism--often in the form of extra-denominational or parachurch campus groups--has eclipsed mainstream Protestantism. Catholicism and Judaism, too, are thriving, as are other faiths.

To help make sense of these changes, the SSRC offers this online guide, which was derived from a series of essays it commissioned from leading authorities in the field of religion and higher education.

Table of Contents:



By SSRC President Craig Calhoun 

By now, most college professors have noticed that there is renewed religious engagement among American undergraduates. Or at least they have heard this in the media. Fewer are in active conversations with students about matters of religion. Fewer still have a nuanced understanding of the patterns of their students’ religious participation and exploration.

One reason for this is that much of the religious engagement on American campuses takes place outside the classroom. At the same time, the extent to which professors are engaged with students’ extracurricular lives has declined with the increasing scale of universities, the emphasis on research productivity, and the growth in numbers of non-faculty advisors and other student services professionals. This means that many professors have little first-hand knowledge of the context of their students’ religious or spiritual lives. If they stop to consider these at all, moreover, they are likely to do so on the basis of the memory of their own student days or projection based on what they’ve seen in the media.

Memory can be specifically misleading. As the essays in our forum inform us, the proportionate role of mainline Protestant denominations in campus religious life has declined in recent years. While there are still campus Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, growth has been mostly among Baptists and Catholics and members of other faith communities – from Buddhists to Muslims to observant Jews. What’s more, campus religious life is less denominationally organized. “Parachurch” organizations like the Campus Christian Fellowship play very large roles. These may or may not be formally recognized affiliates of specific campuses; they usually are not organized under chaplaincies. But they are centers of religious engagement – and importantly, this is often intellectual engagement. Students in these organizations discuss how to interpret the content of their courses – often without the knowledge of their instructors – as well as how to understand the big issues of the day. And – contrary to stereotypes – this is an active part of life at schools like Princeton, not just at less elite and more explicitly religious institutions.

Another reason why college faculty – and many others – are less well informed than they might be about the religious engagements of undergraduates is a widespread but misleading interpretation of “secularization.” Sometimes referred to as the “secularization hypothesis” – though many intellectuals have thought of it as something closer to established fact – this is the notion that it is more or less inevitable that religion will recede in importance throughout modernity – and that scientific and scholarly institutions like the university should lead the way. In fact, this forecast has been inaccurate. This doesn’t mean there hasn’t been dramatic change. If by “secularization” we mean that people of faith live in a world where much of public life is organized with little reference to religious faith, then there has been secularization. If we mean that science and technology shape modern society in profound ways and are either disconnected from religious understandings of the world or treated as part of a separate sphere where knowledge rests on different bases, then indeed there has been secularization. But if we mean that there has been a simple decline of religious faith or engagement; if we mean that most people are content with not asking questions of the sort traditionally considered  “religious”; then we are wrong.1 Religious practice declined most precipitously in Western Europe, but even there not evenly and not necessarily permanently. But the United States remained a country of substantial religious engagement – and around the world, becoming modern has not necessarily meant becoming irreligious. Indeed, social scientists have been challenging the secularization hypothesis for years, though it lingers on in the broader intellectual imagination.

A third reason for lack of attention to students’ religious engagements, though, is the actual secularism of significant parts of the academy. By this I mean not necessarily unbelief – which is more widespread than in the general population but less widespread than many academics think. I mean also the division of religious questions from those of science, social science, most professional fields, and even much work in the humanities. The widespread notion that religion is a private rather than a public matter has had an important shaping influence on the academy. It is not just that most faculty members believe professors should avoid bringing their own religious views into the classroom (and certainly should not make them normative); it is that most faculty members move in networks in which religious questions are seldom raised – whether in discussions of institutional organization, public affairs, or their own research. Simply put, they don’t get much practice thinking about religion.

To borrow a phrase from George Marsden’s classic, The Soul of the University, American academia has moved “from Protestant establishment to established nonbelief.”2  In the late 19th century, the attempt to distinguish social science from the more “value-centered” and less scientific humanities shaped the division of faculties we now inherit.3  While religiously motivated engagements in social reform remained prominent through the early 20th century, they were increasingly separated from the “scientific” cores of the different disciplines. During the second half of the 20th century, many American colleges and universities that were founded as religious institutions distanced themselves from this aspect of their heritage. Inside intellectual discussions, a kind of scientific naturalism reigned.

Questions about religion were compartmentalized in most disciplines; although interest has ebbed and flowed, in most cases this contributed to their marginalization. Political scientists may study religious affiliation as a factor explaining voting behavior, thus, but few are clear about the enormous influence of religious thinkers on the development of political theory. There has been a scramble in fields like international relations to find a way to think about the role of religion after generations of “realist” assumptions about the secular character and interests of states. Sociologists of religion address what goes on inside a specific domain defined as religion – church attendance or charity or fights over homosexuality – but sociologists in general do not challenge a compartmentalized understanding of modern social life that implies that religion has its own place but (normally) little influence on the nature of society itself. This situation may be changing: many new inquiries are underway and some challenge the idea of a “differentiation of spheres” in which, for example, religion and public reason are separated.

Renewed attention to religion has been driven largely by the extent to which it has assumed manifest importance in public life. Debates over evolution and creation have escaped the control of “legitimate” science. Questions about Islam have escaped the boundaries of “Islamic societies” in the Middle East or Asia and thus of the scholarly communities once focused on them. Evangelical Christians have become a prominent public influence in America – as religious nationalism has been prominent elsewhere. The growth of Christianity outside the West is exerting a profound change on Christianity in the West. But amid all these questions about the larger public sphere, attention must also be paid to the religious engagements of students. Professors need to understand their students better, and students are important parts of the reality social science seeks more generally to understand.

This online forum seeks to provide a better basis for understanding the religious engagements of contemporary undergraduates. It is intended first and foremost for college teachers, but also for all those working to strengthen the educational experience of American students. The contributions by leading scholars to this site are based both on research to identify trends and on the thinking of their various authors about how to understand patterns and issues. Of course social science research tells only part of the story – and this is all the more true because there hasn’t been nearly enough research on this topic. There are, for example, surveys that gather data about substantial samples of undergraduates nationally, but it is hard to connect these patterns to individual campuses – neither Princeton nor Penn State, Calvin College nor Carleton is simply average. Moreover, these surveys don’t ask as many of the basic questions about faith and approaches to life as we would wish.4  Likewise, there are local and in-depth studies of particular groups of religiously active students – many by contributors to this forum – but while the number is expanding rapidly it is still small.

What we have done is bring together a number of  essays that discuss different aspects of the religious engagements of American undergraduates based on the best data now available. We have also invited our contributors to discuss some of the ways in which the data are imperfect and where new research may be important. In addition, we have created an online guide, which summarizes key elements of the debates in an accessible style. This guide also contains an extended annotated bibliography to help readers pursue their understanding of the current thinking on these topics. The forum is necessarily incomplete, as our knowledge is; we intend it also to spur new research. New essays will be added to the forum over the next several months. We hope this can be an immediate service to those seeking a better understanding of the religious engagements of undergraduates, and a longer term service to social scientists who seek a better understanding of the place of religion in contemporary social life.


1   Indeed, as Jose Casanova has shown, even the notion that religion remained focused in the private sphere is misleading. See Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). There is a vast literature on secularism and secularization with emphases ranging from the accounting of specifically religious activities, to analyzing different regimes for achieving political neutrality toward religions, to seeking to understand world views. For one important new statement – with references to the existing literature and an attempt to refocus it – see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). Some time ago, Robert Wuthnow helpfully suggested that rather than thinking in terms of secularization, we think about the “restructuring” of religion and its relationship to American life; see The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). Somewhat similarly, the French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger has written of the “recomposition” of religion. See La religion en miettes ou la question des sectes (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1999).

2 George Marsden, The Soul of the University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

3 See Julie Reuben, The Making of the Modern University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 

4 This is changing with renewed attention to religion. See, for example, Sherry L. Hoppe and Bruce W. Speck, eds., Spirituality in Higher Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006). 

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.


2. Report Card: “A” for Atheist?

Photo: Franco Origlia

How Does College Affect Students’ Religious Beliefs?

For decades, many scholars and religious leaders subscribed to the viewpoint that higher education was, as Caplovitz and Sherrow wrote in 1977, “a breeding ground for apostasy.”  The college years were seen to represent a time of intellectual exploration and uncertainty, where long-held beliefs are challenged and absolutes undermined. In this context, some say, it becomes difficult for students to reconcile their religious beliefs with the call to critical thinking.

Sociologist James Hunter asserted in 1983, “It is a well-established fact that education, even Christian education, secularizes.”  

Recent research, however, calls this conventional wisdom into question. As several studies in our forum suggest, the idea that higher education poses a threat to religious faith appears to be more “myth” than measurable fact.

College of New Jersey professor Tim Clydesdale proposes that the religious beliefs of most college students neither increase nor decline while in college. Rather, students adopt a totally different set of priorities. Caught up in the tides of relationships, grades and finances, Clydesdale says, students tend to approach their education not as “intellectual explorer” but as “practical credentialist.”

“They focus on degree completion…and see the rest of their education as little more than a necessary nuisance,” he says. In this setting, undergrads make use of what Clydesdale calls “an identity lockbox.” This lockbox “protects religious identities, along with racial, gender and civic identities, from tampering that might affect their holders’ future entry into the American cultural mainstream.”

University of Texas sociologists Regnerus and Uecker agree. “The religious belief systems of most students go largely untouched for the duration of their education,” they say. One explanation they offer is that while education broadens intellectual horizons, these horizons frequently do not conflict with their religious outlooks. Some students feel that college does not present a threat to their established beliefs.

Another argument in favor of the “lockbox” theory is that the social requirements of campus life prevent students from engaging in open discussions of their religious commitments. To be religious, in some settings, is to be profoundly “uncool.” As Regenerus and Uecker explain, sometimes “to appear overreligious can be the social kiss of death.”

According to these studies, the college experience is less “faith-killer” than “spiritual prophylactic.” After college, many students pick up their religious beliefs where they left off.

Not everyone agrees with this perspective. Some scholars are starting to find that organized religion is alive and well on campus – just not in traditional forms. In this sense, college campuses have mirrored demographic trends – an increasingly diverse student body has started to transform a once-narrow religious landscape.

Discussing the increasingly visible presence of evangelical students on his campus, Harvard reverend Peter J. Gomes says that this visibility is in part due to increased religious diversity. Seeing new entrants to the campus religious landscape – including Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus – practice their faith on campus has normalized open demonstrations of faith traditions.

 “It’s very chic to be a believer now,” Gomes told the Boston Globe in 2003. “In a place which is so dispassionate, so rational, and in many ways so conformist intellectually, if you want to break out of the pack, you say your prayers in public. It is the example of religious practice elsewhere that has emboldened American evangelicals to exercise their own practice.”

Another important argument against apostasy on campus comes from studies that note that while the content of student beliefs does change over time, their commitment to their faith does not. “Evidence is mounting to suggest that students’ commitment to religious values during the college years may not so much increase or decrease as become reexamined, refined, and incorporated in subtle ways with other beliefs and philosophical dispositions,” say researchers Pascarella and Terenzini.

But perhaps the most convincing argument that college is not the faith-killer it was once thought to be comes from a surprising finding. Studying data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent HealthRegnerus and Uecker  found that while it is true that some college students tend to decrease their religious involvement while in school, young people who never enrolled in college reported a greater decline in religious service attendance. In other words, college students are less likely to lose their religion than young adults who never went to college in the first place.

Though research continues to investigate the relationship between religion and higher education, it is safe to say that in the current picture, at least, the common assumption that college undermines belief appears to be more of a misconception. “Simply put,” Regnerus and Uecker conclude, “higher education is not the enemy of religiosity.”

Futher Reading:

Bryant, A. N. 2004. “Campus Religious Communities and the College Student Experience.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Bryant, A. N. and J. Y. Choi, et al. 2003. “Understanding the Religious and Spiritual Dimensions of Students’ Lives in the First Year of College.” Journal of College Student Development 44(6): 723-745.

Cherry, C. and B. A. DeBerg, et al. 2001. Religion on Campus: What Religion Really Means to Today’s Undergraduates. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Clydesdale, T. 2007. The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hartley, H. V., III. 2004. “How College Affects Students’ Religious Faith and Practice: A Review of Research.” College Student Affairs Journal 23(2): 111-129.

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

Hunter, J. D. 1987. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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.

Lee, J. J. 2002. “Religion and College Attendance: Change among Students.” The Review of Higher Education 25(4): 369-384.

Pascarella, E. T. and P. T. Terenzini. 2005. How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, C. and M. Denton. 2005. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Uecker, J. E. and M. D. Regnerus, and M. Vaaler. Forthcoming. “Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood.” Social Forces.

3. College Campuses: “Religious Desert” or “Spiritual Bazaar”?

Muslim Harvard University students
participate in a candle light peace vigil
Photo: William B. Plowman  

Religious Diversity on Campus

To some, it was the end of an era. In December 2006 Gene R. Nichol, the president of the College of William and Mary, a small public university in Virginia, ordered the removal of a gold altar cross from permanent display in the campus chapel.

Critics called the move, at America’s second-oldest university, a rejection of over 300 years of history and tradition. A petition protesting the decision called it “an example of an animus toward religion in general and Christianity in particular.”

But to others, it was the only reasonable move to make. On a campus that now hosts a multicultural and multi-faith student body, the “experience of the chapel is not the same for all of us,” wrote Nichol in a public letter defending his decision.  

It’s just one example of the profound changes taking place in the relationship between religion and college campuses. According to Conrad Cherry, Betty DeBerg, and Amanda Porterfield, such change is an example of the “protean flexibility” of American religion. Campus religion needs to “assume new shapes as social and cultural conditions change.”

The role of organized religion on American campuses has typically been defined according to a “secularization narrative” – the idea that higher education poses a threat to religious faith. But as Schmalzbauer suggests, religion is not disappearing on campus. Rather it has undergone an important transformation. The Protestant denominational ministries that dominated the campus landscape in the 1950s and 1960s now share space with a host of new and creative religious organizations that cater to the diverse profile of today’s students.

In addition to the growing presence of evangelical parachurch groups like Campus Crusadethe Navigators, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Catholic and Jewish campus ministries are increasingly popular.  Muslim  and Hindu student groups have mushroomed, as have informal religious spaces for students like Chabad housesSchmalzbauer has also documented the rise of alternative religious groups – from Mormons to Wiccans. “A webpage on ‘Student Pagan Organizations’ lists groups on 113 campuses,” he says.

As Professor Diane Winston points out, this diversity means that students searching for new ways to look at the world have a wealth of options to choose from. “Because college campuses bring together such a wide variety of people, when college students probe for meaning, their conversational partners are as likely to be Jains as Jews, Muslims as Methodists,” she wrote in a 1998 editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Instead of seeing American society as undergoing a process of “secularization,” she says, we might do well to consider the term “diffusion,” which better describes “the scattering of religious ideas, beliefs and behaviors” across not only college campuses but all areas of public life.

Following this demographic “diffusion,” contemporary researchers note that overall college campuses have become increasingly respectful and tolerant of religious diversity. In a 2006 study of NYU students,  90% expressed the opinion that NYU is supportive of “diverse religious groups,” 87% feel “comfortable expressing their religious views on campus,” and 86% agree that “there is more than one religious path.” Bryant  found that Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish freshmen displayed a high degree of security and stability in terms of their religious beliefs and identities.

One ethnographic study  of four college campuses – including a secular state school – concluded, “We found religion on the four campuses sufficiently vital and inviting to make us wonder if it had ever been more so in the past…[T]he ethos of decentered, diverse, religiously tolerant institutions of higher education is a breeding ground for vital religious practice and teaching.”

Other studies are less positive. The few studies that have looked at the growth of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism on campus report that tensions still exist. Some scholars note that Muslim students have trouble trying to find safe spaces to pray during college. Prema Kurien’s forum essay  describes the challenges of setting up a Hindu organization on college campuses.

Whether an upswing in religious life on campus suggests an increased degree of tolerance, or merely greater visibility on campus by a more diverse student population, what these findings indicate are that more and more attention is being paid to the diverse religious lives of students on campus.

Other factors that might influence participation – such as the availability of funding for these organizations, or the use of emails, blogs and listservs, which make it easier than ever to organize religious and other groups – remain to be investigated in order to understand the connection between higher education and a vibrant, diverse and tolerant religious life.

There is one way to keep things in perspective, however. As Regnerus and Uecker  note:

“College campuses are less hostile to organized religious expression and its retention than are other contexts encountered by emerging adults, such as the workplace.”

Further Reading:

Bryant, A. N. 2004. “Campus Religious Communities and the College Student Experience.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Bryant, A. N. 2006. “Assessing the Gender Climate of an Evangelical Student Subculture in the United States.” Gender and Education 18(6): 613-634.

Cawthon, T. W. and C. Jones. 2004. “A Description of Tradition and Contemporary Campus Ministries.” College Student Affairs Journal 23(2): 158-172.

Cherry, C. and B. A. DeBerg, et al. 2001. Religion on Campus: What Religion Really Means to Today’s Undergraduates. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Jaschik, S. 2006. “The ‘Great Divide’ in Religious Studies.” Inside Higher Ed. 20 November 2006. (Available online:

Kim, R. Y. 2004. “Second-Generation Korean American Evangelicals: Ethnic, Multiethnic, or White Campus Ministries?” Sociology of Religion 65(1):19-34.

Kim, R. Y. 2006. God’s New Whiz Kids? Korean American Evangelicals on Campus. New York: NYU Press.

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.

Mahoney, K. A. and J. Schmalzbauer, et al. 2001. “Religion: A Comeback on Campus.” Liberal Education 87(4): 36-41.

Marsden, G. 1994. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

McMurtrie, B. 1999. “Pluralism and Prayer Under One Roof.” Chronicle of Higher Education 46(15): A48-A50.

Nash, R. J. 2001. Religious Pluralism in the Academy: Opening the Dialogue. New York: Peter Lang.

Nasir, N. i. S. and J. Al-Amin. 2006. “Creating Identity-Safe Spaces on College Campuses for Muslim Students.” Change 38(2): 22-27.

Pascarella, E. T. and P. T. Terenzini. 2005. How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reisberg, L. 2000. “Campus Witches May Wear Black, But Don’t Look for Hats or Broomsticks.” Chronicle of Higher Education 47(8): A49-A50.

Riley, N. S. 2004. God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sloan, D. 1994. Faith and Knowledge: Mainline Protestantism and Higher Education. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.

Smith, C., ed. 2003. The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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

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

4. Terms of Devotion

Photo: Shepard Sherbell

Religion in the College Curriculum

In October 2006, a panel of scholars at Harvard University charged with rethinking the undergraduate curriculum suggested adding a mandatory course in the area of “Reason and Faith.” The news provoked a passionate debate. A Catholic newspaper trumpeted the headline, “Academy Rediscovers Religion,” and suggested, “Where Harvard goes, lesser institutions will follow.” University of Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins and provost Thomas Burish applauded the recommendation in a Washington Post op-ed, saying, “We hope that the report of Harvard’s curriculum committee signals a more welcome atmosphere within the academic community for serious consideration of and engagement with issues of faith, religion and religious institutions.”

Others were less in favor. An editorial by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker in the student paper The Crimson opined, “Universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these.”

At a time when religion lies at the center of many contemporary debates, from international conflicts to stem-cell research, it is not surprising that the debates extend to the college curriculum.

The question of whether religion ought to be taught in college classrooms comes at a time when renewed attention is being paid to the “holistic” development of college students.

For Professor Larry Braskamp at Loyola University, this means attending to the religious and spiritual development of students as well as their intellectual development. “Some scholars view the time in college as one where students primarily focus on moving toward self-authorship,” Braskamp says. “I like to think of student development in terms of investment – students investing their time, talents and energy into activities that they find meaningful to them.”

One way in which this holism can be addressed is by creating environments conducive to asking “Big Questions” – that is, where students feel comfortable in the classroom asking questions on a variety of issues, from questions of racial, gender and sexual identity to moral and value-centered ones.

Some scholars think Big Questions deserve even more space in the academy. The Wingspread Declaration on Religion and Public Life, a call to action compiled by a group of 25 scholars from various universities and disciplines across the country, calls for colleges and universities to rethink the role of religion on campus and in the curriculum and provide students with “religious literacy” in their education – and not only in religious studies. “Students must learn the relevance of religion to all disciplines – sciences, humanities, arts, social sciences – and the professions,” the declaration states.

In a recent editorial in the New York Times, religion and humanities professor Mark C. Taylor describes the dangers professors can encounter when their lesson plans clash with students’ religious beliefs. He advises, “Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion in the 21st century must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expansive understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in life.

“The aim of critical analysis is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices – though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line – but to examine the conditions necessary for their formation and to consider the many functions they serve.”

Part of the issue is that there is a considerable difference between faculty and student perspectives as to what ought to be accomplished during class time. A national survey conducted by Barbara Walvoord at both secular and religious colleges reveals “a great divide” between professors’ and students’ ideals. While 92% of faculty surveyed at secular colleges said that the goal to “develop critical thinking” was “essential” or “important,” only 59% of students surveyed at the same colleges agreed. And though a mere 8% of faculty said that it was important or essential to “develop students’ own religious beliefs,” 51% of students at secular schools held that goal to be important.

Another issue is that some faculty may be uncomfortable, ill equipped, or simply unwilling to broach religious topics in a classroom setting. Writing in Inside Higher Ed, W. Robert Connor hypothesizes that some instructors worry they are not “experts” in the field. Another problem is that engaging with Big Questions is not on the agenda of many professors.

“Senior colleagues don’t encourage it; professional journals don’t publish it; deans don’t reward it and a half dozen disgruntled students might sink your tenure case with their teaching evaluations,” Connor points out. “You learn early on in an academic career not to touch the third rail. If this is right, do we need to rewire the whole system of academia?”

At Harvard, there seems to have been some attempt at a little rewiring. The university’s final report on the undergraduate curriculum replaced the initial recommendation for the “Reason and Faith” category with a new subject area, “Culture and Belief,” a decision that appeared to mollify some and anger others.  

“Harvard is a secular institution,” the report states, “but religion is an important part of our students’ lives. When they get to college, students often struggle to sort out the relationship between their own beliefs and practices and those of fellow students, and the relationship of religious belief to the resolutely secular world of the academy. It is also important for students to have the opportunity to learn something about the impact that religious belief and practice has on the world, as well as on themselves.”

Further Reading:

Braskamp, L. A. Forthcoming. “The Religious and Spiritual Journey of College Students.” In The American University in a Postsecular Age: Religion and Higher Education, edited by D. Jacobsen and R. H. Jacobsen. New York: Oxford University Press.

Braskamp, L. A. and L. Trautvetter, et al. 2006. Putting Students First: How to Develop Students Purposefully. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cherry, C. and B. A. DeBerg, et al. 2001. Religion on Campus: What Religion Really Means to Today’s Undergraduates. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Chickering, A. W. and J. C. Dalton, et al. 2005. Encouraging Authenticity and Spirituality in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Jablonski, M., ed. 2001. Implications of Student Spirituality for Student Affairs Practice: New Directions for Student Services, No. 95. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jacobsen, D. and R. H. Jacobsen, eds. Forthcoming. The American University in a Postsecular Age: Religion and Higher Education. New York, Oxford University Press.

Kuh, G. D. and R. M. Gonyea. 2006. “Spirituality, Liberal Learning, and College Student Engagement.” Liberal Education 92(1): 40-47.

Marsden, G. 1994. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nash, R. J. 2001. Religious Pluralism in the Academy: Opening the Dialogue. New York: Peter Lang.

Sommerville, C. J. 2006. The Decline of the Secular University: Why the Academy Needs Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sterk, A., ed. 2002. “Religion, Scholarship, and Higher Education: Perspectives, Models, and Future Prospects." Lilly Seminar on Religion and Higher Education. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.


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


5. Do Religious Students Do Better?

Photo: David H. Wells

Religion and Academic Achievement

Given your average group of freshman students, is there any way to tell which ones are going to do well in school? Some studies say there is. Religious belief, religious group participation, and spiritual orientation are linked to academic motivation, good academic standing, and time spent studying.

Religious engagement appears to offer a positive influence in other ways. Students who participate in “spiritual” activities claim to have greater emotional wellbeing. Religious communities offer support in times of stress. Studies of African American students have found that students use prayer, Bible reading, church services, and meditation as important coping tools.

A detailed study at the University of Indiana reports among other findings that “involvement in religious activities and spirituality-enhancing activities does not seem to hinder and may even have mild salutary effects on engagement in educationally purposeful activities and desired outcomes of college.”

And as a rule, religious students are less likely to take part in the triumvirate of activities common to most students’ college experience: drinking, drugs, and partying.

Some studies even found that religious students tend to behave more ethically. Researcher Robin Perrin presented college students with a number of “ethical” situations and scenarios. 44% of born-again students chose the “more ethical” response to the scenario, while only 26% of non born-agains did the same. Students at religiously affiliated colleges are also more likely to be involved in pro-social causes.

But as Darren Sherkat’s essay in our forum notes, the high correlation of religion and academic achievement needs to be taken with a grain of salt. “Studies of students enrolled in college, and particularly ones which focus on students enrolled in religious or elite institutions, cannot fully convey the effects of religious factors on college success,” he says. “Most studies of the effects of religion on college success focus on personal religiosity or on religious participation, and these indicators are likely to produce positive effects. In contrast, more sophisticated longitudinal research shows that sectarian religious affiliation and biblical fundamentalism…have a substantial negative effect on educational attainment.”

In some cases, religious devotion can impede success in school. North Carolina State University professor Alyssa Bryant’s research found that some evangelical students devote so much time to their religious commitments that they have little room left for studying. And Sherkat has found that conservative Christians – especially women – tend to have lower rates of college attendance and completion overall, given the pressures within their faith communities toward early marriage and childrearing.

And then there is also the age-old chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the good student or the religious student? Do religious students do better because of their religious adherence? Or is it more that good students tend to join religious groups? It’s also unclear whether religious students do better than other students in academic or extracurricular communities, such as student government, choir members, or even the chess club.

More research remains to be done so that faculty and administrators – as well as students and their parents – can better understand the relationship between students’ religious engagements and their academic ones.


Further Reading:

Astin, A. W. 1993. “An Empirical Typology of College Students.” Journal of College Student Development 34(1): 36-46.

Bell, R. and H. Wechsler, et al. 1997. “Correlates of College Student Marijuana Use: Results of a U.S. National Survey.” Addiction 92(5): 571-581.

Blaine, B. and J. Crocker. 1995. “Religiousness, Race, and Psychological Well-Being—Exploring Social-Psychological Mediators.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21:1031-1041.

Bryant, A. N. 2004. “Campus Religious Communities and the College Student Experience.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Constantine, M. G. and M. L. Miville, et al. 2006. “Religion, Spirituality, and Career Development in African American College Students: A Qualitative Inquiry.” Career Development Quarterly 54(3): 227-241.

Darnell, A. and D. E. Sherkat. 1997. “The Impact of Protestant Fundamentalism on Educational Attainment.” American Sociological Review 62(2): 306-315.

Kennedy, E. J. and L. Lawton. 1998. “Religiousness and Business Ethics.” Journal of Business Ethics 17: 163-175.

Kuh, G. D. and R. M. Gonyea. 2006. “Spirituality, Liberal Learning, and College Student Engagement.” Liberal Education 92(1): 40-47.

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.

Ozorak, E. W. 2003. “Love of God and Neighbor: Religion and Volunteer Service among College Students.” Review of Religious Research 44(3): 285-299.

Perkins, H. W. 1994. “The Contextual Effect of Secular Norms on Religiosity as Moderator of Student Alcohol and Other Drug Use.” Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion 6: 187-208.

Perrin, R. D. 2000. “Religiosity and Honesty: Continuing the Search for the Consequential Dimension.” Review of Religious Research 41(4): 534-544.

Pollard, Lawanda J. and Larry W. Bates. 2004. “Religion and Perceived Stress among Undergraduates during Fall 2001 Final Examinations.” Psychological Reports 95: 999-1007.

Regnerus, M. D. 2003. “Religion and Positive Adolescent Outcomes: A Review of Research and Theory.” Review of Religious Research 44(4): 394-413.

Sherkat, D. E. and A. Darnell. 1999. “The Effect of Parents’ Fundamentalism on Children’s Educational Attainment: Examining Differences by Gender and Children’s Fundamentalism.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38(1): 23-35.

Zern, D. S. 1989. “Some Connections Between Increasing Religiousness and Academic Accomplishment in a College Population.” Adolescence 24: 141-154.

6. An Educated Opinion

Faculty Beliefs and the Role of Religion in Teaching

In 1916, as belief in scientific reasoning took hold across America, the psychologist James Leuba published a survey on whether scientists believed in God and immortality. His findings – that 60 percent of scientists surveyed did not – raised the specter among certain politicians and conservatives that the morality of the country was at risk. Leuba predicted that education in general – and scientific education in particular – would lead to a serious decline in organized religion.  

In one sense, Leuba’s predictions were not far off. Scientists, as well as university professors at large, practice religion far less than the general population. This is due not only to the rational, universalistic thinking required in the scientific realm, but also to the institutionalization of academic freedom and the complex relationship of church and state on college campuses over the course of the twentieth century.

Recent research in this area suggests, however, that to paint scientists as entirely agnostic or atheist is inaccurate. Eighty years after Leuba’s pathbreaking work, historian Edward Larson and writer Larry Witham decided to replicate the study. To their surprise, the proportion of scientists surveyed who professed belief “in a personal God and an afterlife” has not changed.

“Traditional western theism has not lost its place among U.S. scientists, despite their intellectual preoccupations with material reality,” conclude Larson and Witham in a 1997 article in Nature magazine.

Larson and Witham’s findings, which surveyed American scientists in general, appear to parallel the results of studies that focus on university professors in particular. University at Buffalo (SUNY) professor Elaine Ecklund, who conducted extensive research on the religious and spiritual beliefs of natural and social science faculty at 21 U.S. elite research universities, notes that many academic scientists demonstrate a strong interest in spirituality.

“When asked, ‘To what extent do you consider yourself a spiritual person,’ about 66 percent of the natural scientists and about 69 percent of the social scientists describe themselves as spiritual,” Ecklund says. “This means there is a population of scientists who say they have no religious affiliation but who do see spirituality as important.”

While there is substantial religiosity and spirituality among college faculty, those faculty members who are religious tend to have less conservative or traditional theological views. For many scientists, interest in spirituality appears to be a way for them to pursue questions of meaning and purpose apart from a traditional religious setting.  Very few faculty are Biblical literalists, born-again Christians, or self-identified religious “traditionalists.” according to researchers Gross and SimmonsHalf of all faculty (and 75% of faculty at elite institutions) believe the Bible to be an “ancient book of fables.”

But there are important differences between community college and elite research faculty in terms of the content of their belief: community college faculty are three times as likely to believe the Bible to be the actual word of God, only half as likely to believe that prayer does not belong in public schools, and six times more likely to believe intelligent design to be a serious scientific alternative to evolution, according to researchers Gross and Simmons.  

Perhaps the most vital question in this context is how faculty members actualize their beliefs in the college environment. How do faculty beliefs get translated into interactions with students in the classroom?

Ecklund’s research found that entrenched cultural norms discourage discussions of religion, especially at elite and public institutions. Less than a quarter of elite scientists surveyed believed that scholars in their field held a positive attitude toward religion, for instance, and faculty at public colleges are far less likely than their peers in Catholic or other religious colleges to believe that spirituality has a place in their teaching or in their curriculum.

Faculty religious beliefs may also remain in the background because they are not seen as central to the tasks of educators.

Another detailed study by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons found that well over half of faculty profess belief in God, and an additional 20% claim to believe in “a Higher Power of some kind.” The study also notes that two in five report attending a religious service at least once a month. And a national survey by the Higher Education Research Institute in 2006 found that nearly two-thirds of faculty consider themselves to be at least somewhat religious, and over four in five consider themselves to be spiritual.

Although religion among professors has been somewhat underestimated, the fact that they are still on the whole less religious than the general U.S. population could create friction between devout students and their less religious faculty counterparts, say Gross and Simmons.

“In the context of growing pressures on young people to go to college and the ongoing political mobilization of conservative Christians,” they caution, “we should expect continued conflict in the years to come between the forces of religious conservatism and the institution of the American university.”

Further Reading:

Ecklund, E. and C. Scheitle. 2005. “Religious Differences between Natural and Social Scientists: Preliminary Results from a Study of ‘Religion among Academic Scientists’ (RAAS).” Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Edwards, M. U. 2006. A Professor’s Guide to Communities, Conflicts, and Promising Conversations. New York: Palgrave.

Higher Education Research Institute. 2006. Spirituality and the Professoriate: A National Study of Faculty Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute at University of California, Los Angeles.

Larson, E. J. and L. Witham. 1997. “Scientists Are Still Keeping the Faith.” Nature 386: 435-436.

Larson, E. J. and L. Witham. 1998. “Leading Scientists Still Reject God.” Nature 394: 313.

Schmalzbauer, J. 2003. People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Sterk, A., ed. 2002. “Religion, Scholarship, and Higher Education: Perspectives, Models, and Future Prospects.” Lilly Seminar on Religion and Higher Education. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.

7. Student Commitments

Photo: Ed Kashi

Evangelical Students on College Campuses

“Among both scholarly and religious observers, the university has long been regarded as secular territory,” notes John Schmalzbauer, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. “In books like How to Stay Christian in College, evangelicals have portrayed higher education as a threat to religious faith. In a more academic vein, historians have chronicled the exclusion of religion from campus life.”

But the growing visibility of conservative religious students on liberal college campuses has called that familiar narrative into question. Even schools that are typically considered antipathetic to religion, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have a noticeable evangelical presence – MIT’s campus sports at least eight Christian fellowship groups.

According to North Carolina State University professor Alyssa Bryant, this visibility merits some attention. “As an increasingly viable and vocal evangelical presence has taken shape in higher education,” Bryant says, “efforts to understand evangelical Christian students, their subculture, and the contribution they make to the pluralistic college environment are vital in promoting a healthy campus climate for students from multiple backgrounds and traditions.”

Bryant says one of the first tasks is to undo the stereotypes many have of evangelical students. The evangelical student today may be traditional when it comes to dress, personal relationships and gender roles, but traditionalism “falls by the wayside” in other categories. For example, though evangelical students are predictably in favor of a pro-life agenda, “their liberal inclinations emphasize the importance of providing for the welfare of economically disadvantaged people, protecting the environment, implementing gun control, and abolishing the death penalty.”

Today’s evangelical students are also non-traditional when it comes to practicing their faith. New forms of worship in casual settings with multimedia technology defy the conventional image of a joyless, narrowly conscripted religious adherence. No longer are evangelicals confined to Bible studies and worship gatherings. Instead campus ministries now offer everything from pizza parties to amusement park trips to mountain retreats.  

Bryant coined the expression, “countercultural conservative,” to emphasize the ways in which evangelicals increasingly straddle both liberal and conservative views.

An article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine describes this generation of evangelicals as one that “reconciles science and the Bible, body and soul; opposes both war and abortion;…and leapfrogs the two-party political divide. All the while refusing to renounce its conservative-evangelical tag.”

Pepperdine University professor Rebecca Kim writes that Asian-American evangelicals are also “changing the face of campus evangelicalism.” Though Asian-Americans make up approximately 4% of the U.S. population, they comprise over 25% of evangelical college students at New York City colleges and universities. An enormous proportion of Asian-Americans are found in on-campus Christian fellowships at Ivy League schools across the nation.

Some recent research shows that evangelical students are not always comfortable in liberal college environments. Confronted with critical views that do not mesh with their own, some evangelical students “sell out” – hide their true beliefs – to get good grades. Others attend “countercourses”– off-campus classes held by local clergy to realign faiths possibly shaken by the standard curriculum. Still others defend their religious views in class, which makes it hard for them to integrate socially with other students who do not share their beliefs.

“The experience for the majority [of Christian students], I would venture, can best be summarized in one word: Unease,” says Bryant. “A sentiment that is understandable, given the negative stereotypes evangelical students absorb about Christians from those around them.”

As Perry and Armstrong put it, “[evangelical college students] define their values in opposition to typical college students.” Moreover, “confronting the stereotypes of peers and professors who don’t understand them is part of life on a secular campus.”

Anxious to redraw the caricature of evangelicals as traditional or single-minded, some research tends to draw non-evangelicals using the same broad strokes. Often, secular college life is portrayed as self-serving, hedonistic, or immature. While this may be the case for some, it is not every student’s experience. Rather than setting up oppositions between evangelical students and their less religious peers, or citing irreconciliable world views, studies of evangelical commitment – and commitment of students more generally – could show how increased religious diversity on campus alters worldviews, levels of engagement, or identities among different evangelical groups.


Further Reading:

Bramadat, P. A. 2000. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bryant, A. N. 2004. “Campus Religious Communities and the College Student Experience.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Bryant, A. N. 2005. “Evangelicals on Campus: An Exploration of Culture, Faith, and College Life.” Religion and Education 32, 1-30.

Bryant, A. N. 2006. “Assessing the Gender Climate of an Evangelical Student Subculture in the United States.” Gender and Education 18(6): 613-634.

Hammond, P. E. and J. D. Hunter. 1984. “On Maintaining Plausibility: The Worldview of Evangelical College Students.” Journal for the Social Scientific Study of Religion 23: 221-238.

Hunt, K. and G. Hunt. 1991. For Christ and the University: The Story of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the U.S.A. 1940-1990. Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity.

Hunter, J. D. 1987. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kim, R. Y. 2004. “Second-Generation Korean American Evangelicals: Ethnic, Multiethnic, or White Campus Ministries?Sociology of Religion 65(1):19-34.

Kim, R. Y. 2006. God’s New Whiz Kids? Korean American Evangelicals on Campus. New York: NYU Press.

Penning, J. and C. Smidt. 2002. Evangelicalism: The Next Generation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Smith, C. 1998. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

8. Keeping the Faith

Monks and students in a library, 15th century

Religious Colleges in America

“In a system of higher education as diverse as the one in the United States, there will be a niche for every taste, including those parents who want their children to be taught fundamental religious truths and exposed to traditional standards of moral conduct.” 

Such is the logic behind the intense proliferation of enrolment in evangelical Christian colleges across the U.S. over the last ten to fifteen years. Religious institutions now enroll one in ten college students; since 1990, enrollment has increased at 102 evangelical colleges by 70% (from 135,000 to 230,000 total) compared to 28% at private institutions and 13% at public ones.

Some of these colleges have attracted their share of attention. In 2005, a New Yorker article by Hanna Rosin profiled Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. The college, whose stated mission  is “to prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding,” was designed at the behest of two constituencies: home-schooling parents and conservative congressmen. The college is known as the “Evangelical Ivy League” by its president and “Harvard for Home-Schoolers” by its 300 students – 85% of them were home-schooled. 

“In conservative circles…homeschoolers are considered something of an elite, rough around the edges but pure – in their focus, capacity for work, and ideological clarity – a view that helps explain why so many conservative politicians are hiring its graduates,” Rosin writes. Many of them have internships at the White House, and a good number of them go on to work as political operatives in some form.

Colleges such as this one suggest that a sea change has taken place in the intellectual commitments of evangelical Protestantism. Yet writer Alan Wolfe expresses concern that the “mainstreaming” of conservative Christian colleges and universities does not necessarily lead to open-mindedness. “Classes at Patrick Henry may be demanding,” Wolfe writes. “But the students who take them have a depressing tendency to hue to a party line.” “In some ways,” he notes, “the older evangelical colleges that have been willing to open themselves up to the life of the mind are more countercultural than the modern ones that represent intentionally created conservative communities.”

Current studies have still not provided a complete portrait of the challenges and opportunities in evangelical colleges. There is little contemporary research comparing students at denominational colleges with students at secular schools; there is also a dearth of research into non-evangelical faith-based colleges. In short, much more research is needed on this important topic, in order to better assess the role of religious colleges on the landscape of higher education in America.

Further Reading:

Good, J. L. and C. Cartwright. 1998. “Development of Moral Judgment among Undergraduate University Students.” College Student Journal 32(2): 270-276.

Ingram, L. C. 1986. “Sectarian Colleges and Academic Freedom.” Review of Religious Research 27(4): 300-314.

Kuh, G. D. 2004. “Do Environments Matter? A Comparative Analysis of the Impress of Different Types of Colleges and Universities on Character.” Journal of College and Character 2. (Available online:

Pascarella, E. T. and P. T. Terenzini. 2005. How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reisberg, L. 2000. “Campus Witches May Wear Black, But Don’t Look for Hats or Broomsticks.” Chronicle of Higher Education 47(8): A49-A50.

Riley, N. S. 2004. God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Rosin, H. 2005. “God and Country.” The New Yorker 81: 44.


Program Officer: Jonathan VanAntwerpen

Research: Damon Mayrl

Writing: Melissa Aronczyk

Bibliographic Research and Annotations: Laura Gagne, Hillary Holt and Freeden Oeur

Site Design and Editing: Paul Price, Sarah Hsu, and Jillian Moo-Young

Preface by: Craig Calhoun

When citing or referring to this document, please cite as:
C. Calhoun, M. Aronczyk, D. Mayrl and J. VanAntwerpen, The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates, Social Science Research Council, May 2007.