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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

College Kills Faith?

Rick Santorum is off base when he criticizes college as a place where young people lose their “faith commitment.” In fact, the percentage of those with weakened religious affiliations is higher for those who don’t go to college.

Santorum also twists Obama’s words when he accuses him of snobbery for pushing a college education. In fact, the president also urged vocational training.

On Feb. 26, ABC’s “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos asked Santorum why he called President Obama “a snob” and why Santorum called colleges “indoctrination mills.” Santorum replied that colleges are “liberal” and that “most kids who go to college who are conservatives … are singled out” and “ridiculed.” He then added:

Santorum, Feb. 26: You know the statistic that at least I was familiar with from a few years ago — I don’t know if it still holds true but I suspect it may even be worse – that 62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it.

Santorum made the claim more forcefully at a Jan. 25 appearance in Naples, Fla., where he said “you know 62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it.” He also encouraged people to not give money to colleges.

But Santorum’s claims are off base. Those not attending college were more likely to stop going to religious services and to report they no longer had a religious affiliation than their college-going cohorts, according to data cited in a 2007 report published by the Social Science Research Council and unearthed by PBS. (We asked the Santorum campaign if this was indeed the report to which the former Pennsylvania senator was referring, but we have not received a response.)

The report said: “Contrary to our own and others’ expectations, however, young adults who never enrolled in college are presently the least religious young Americans.” Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the authors wrote, showed that “64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their attendance habits.” But the figure was higher for those not in college. “Yet, 76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance.”

On top of that, 25 percent of those not in college reported a lower “religious salience” than they did when interviewed in high school, while 19 percent of those attending college reported such a decline. Those not in college were also more likely to report they no longer identified with any religious affiliation: 20 percent, compared with 13 percent of those in college.

Santorum doesn’t say whether young adults later on, in their years after college, start going to church more frequently — but that’s exactly what the authors of the 2007 report expect. They wrote that many Americans’ religious expression drops off in young adulthood and picks back up again as they get older. “The climb back into regular or semi-regular religious practice — if it occurs at all, and it usually does — is often stimulated by marriage and childbearing.”

Most college students didn’t lose their religion, the authors said, but many reported a drop in outward displays of religiosity. “The religious belief systems of most students go largely untouched for the duration of their education,” the authors wrote. “Religious faith lies dormant in students’ lives, waiting to be awakened at some point after college, but it is rarely seen as something that could either influence or be influenced by the educational process.”

A study published last year in The Review of Religious Research and based on 1998 data from the General Social Survey said, among other findings, that education was “unrelated to religious disaffiliation.”

The Effects of Education on Americans’ Religious Practices, Beliefs, and Affiliations, 2011: While education has a positive effect on switching religious affiliations, particularly to mainline denominations and “other” religious traditions, it is unrelated to religious disaffiliation. Education also has a positive effect on religious participation, emphasizing the importance of religion, and supporting the rights of religious authorities to influence people’s votes.

Twisting Obama’s Words

Santorum also twists Obama’s words, claiming the president made a college-or-bust demand on all Americans, some of whom would rather train to be a carpenter, auto mechanic or some other non-college-level profession. “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” Santorum said in a Feb. 25 speech in Michigan. But Obama, as Stephanopoulos pointed out, asked “every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.” And Santorum has stated a similar request.

Obama, Feb. 24, 2009: And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.

On “Meet the Press,” Santorum said he held the same belief — but he claimed Obama wanted everyone in four-year schools:

Santorum, Feb. 26: And what I’ve said is that you know I want everyone to have the opportunity to go to college or any other higher — higher level of training skills.

In fact one of the big things I talk about in growing the — the energy and manufacturing sector of this economy, is we’re going to need upgraded skills for people to be able to go and — and operate that machinery, be able to do the things that are necessary. But it doesn’t mean you have to go to a four-year college degree and — and the president saying that everyone should.

In fact, Obama announced billions in funding for community colleges in 2009 to increase graduation rates. Today, in a speech to the National Governors Association, he reiterated that he supported community colleges, too:

Obama, Feb. 27: When I speak about higher education we’re not just talking about a four-year degree. We’re talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that now is requiring somebody walking through the door, handling a million-dollar piece of equipment. And they can’t go in there unless they’ve got some basic training beyond what they received in high school.

Sounds to us like the president and Santorum favor the same thing.

Back in 2006, Santorum’s website also said he wanted every child to have access to higher education:

RickSantorum.com, 2006: In addition to Rick’s support of ensuring that primary and secondary schools in Pennsylvania are equipped for success, he is equally committed to ensuring the every Pennsylvanian has access to higher education. Rick Santorum has supported legislative solutions that provide loans, grants, and tax incentives to make higher education more accessible and affordable.

So, Santorum is criticizing the president for advocating the same thing he once supported himself.

— Lori Robertson