Are College Students Distancing Themselves from Religion?

  • Rachel Rosenbaum Religion News Service
  • Updated Feb 16, 2015
Are College Students Distancing Themselves from Religion?

(RNS) This year’s college freshmen are less concerned with their religious identity and more concerned about their future job prospects.

Or at least that’s according to an annual survey, The American Freshman, released recently by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The survey included responses from more than 153,000 college freshmen at 227 schools nationwide.

The survey suggested that college freshmen are increasingly distancing themselves from religion. Nearly 28 percent of those surveyed did not identify with a religion, a number that has increased by 12 percent since 1971.

Ajay Nair, Emory University’s dean of campus life, says this number suggests that students are participating in religious life in other ways.

“Religion has become increasingly politicized in recent years and, as a result, I think students may be reluctant to identify with religious institutions,” says Nair. “But it doesn’t mean they aren’t spiritual and I think institutions like Emory do a great job of helping the spirituality of our students flourish.”

Alana Redden, a freshman at Emory, experienced this firsthand. Growing up in Vermont with a mother who converted to Judaism and a father who converted to Buddhism, Redden did not fully explore her religious interests before arriving at Emory.

“I’ve always identified with Buddhism and its approach to the world, but — besides my dad — I didn’t have a Buddhist community to plug into at home,” says Redden. “So I have plugged into the Buddhist community here at Emory which has been really interesting.”

Redden says she plans to continue that journey while in Tibet for a semester-long exchange program.

While Redden is already planning her time abroad, many students are looking even farther into the future. The CIRP survey also revealed that more than 43 percent of first-year students plan to pursue a master’s degree. In 1974, just 28 percent of students expressed similar aspirations.

Redden attributes the appeal of a graduate degree to the increasingly competitive job market.

“There’s an increasing emphasis on education as the years go on,” Redden said. “Undergrads are realizing that the job markets are really competitive and to be able to get the job that they’re looking for a lot of careers require Master’s degrees.”

(Rachel Rosenbaum writes for USA Today.)