Santorum claims college pushes people away from religion, experts push back

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently suggested that going to college pushes people away from the church and faith. Those who study the subject disagree:

Santorum told talk show host Glenn Beck on Thursday that “62% of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it.”

Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, a Nashville evangelical research and marketing agency, said, “There is no statistical difference in the dropout rate among those who attended college and those that did not attend college. Going to college doesn’t make you a religious drop out.”…

The real causes [of leaving the faith]: lack of “a robust faith,” strongly committed parents and an essential church connection, Rainer said.

“Higher education is not the villain,” said sociologist William D’Antonio of Catholic University of America. Since 1986, D’Antonio’s surveys of American Catholics have asked about Mass attendance, whether they rate their religion as very important in their life, and whether they have considered leaving Catholicism. The percentage of Catholics who scored low on all three points hovers between 18% in 1993 and 14% in 2011. But the percentage of people who are highly committed fell from 27% to 19%.

Recent research also disputes this: several 2011 studies found that those with education are actually more religious than those with less education.

So what was Santorum getting at with his statement? Three thoughts:

1. Conservative Christians commonly cite alarmist statistics to show that the church needs to redouble its efforts or to demonstrate that the church is under attack. See this classic article “Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics,” a good article titled “Curing Christians’ Stats Abuse,” and the book Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…

2. He is hitting back against “elitist academia,” responding to but also feeding the perception college classrooms are filled with atheists and agnostics who want to disabuse students of their faith. Of course, there are many people of faith in academia. This is a larger battle over a perceived liberal, atheist elite versus a faith-filled “average America.”

2a. If Santorum were correct, does this mean that people of faith should not send their kids to college? Or alternatively, do these ideas continue to boost attendance at religious colleges?

3. To compound matters, Santorum was talking to Glenn Beck and this argument was aimed at Beck’s audience. At the same time, it appears Santorum made this a more general argument on the campaign trail:

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” Santorum said Saturday at a campaign stop in Troy, Mich. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor that [tries] to indoctrinate them.”

In the end, this seems like another plank in a moral argument, rather than a political or social argument, for Republicans.