College gets a bad rap among some religious Americans. Campuses are thought to weaken personal faith, whether it's because young people are free to sleep in on Sundays or because the secular, academic environment leads students astray.
"The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America," said then-GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum at a rally in January 2012, PBS reported at the time. "As you know, 62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it."
His statistic couldn't be supported by research, but that didn't stop many listeners from agreeing, said Philip Schwadel, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
"I'm confident that a majority of Americans believe higher education is detrimental to religion," he said.
And in some ways, it could be, Schwadel added. When religious teens move away to attend college, they leave behind their longtime faith communities and get exposed to new beliefs.
"Meeting people with different ideas may lead them to question some of the things they've learned," he said.
However, it's too simplistic to say that a college education always negatively affects someone's spiritual life, as a new Pew Research Center analysis on the relationship between religion and education illustrates.
The report shows that Americans with college degrees are just as likely as their less educated peers to regularly attend worship services and that highly educated Christians show similar levels of religious observance as other Christians.
"It is true that, among the public as a whole, highly educated people tend to be less religious. They're less likely to believe in God with absolute certainty, to say that religion is very important and to pray regularly," said Greg Smith, Pew's associate director of research. "But among many religious groups — and especially within Christianity — this (pattern) isn't quite so clear."
The kinds of assumptions Schwadel described and Santorum expressed helped inspire Pew's new project. Researchers wanted to mine the data they already had to add context to discussions of religion and college.
"This may not be pegged to a particular current event, but it's still an important question worth tackling," Smith said.
He added that Pew's 2011 survey on Mormon Americans had already tipped him off to flaws in the argument that a college degree necessarily leads people away from faith.
"There were several examples in which the most highly educated Mormons were the most highly religiously observant," Smith said. "I wondered how consistent that pattern was and whether it applied to other religious groups."
That survey found that 84 percent of those belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were college graduates showed a high level of religious commitment, praying frequently, believing in God, attending worship services and valuing religion's role in their life. They were more likely to be highly committed than Mormons who had only attended some college (75 percent) or had received no education beyond high school (50 percent), Pew reported.
The new analysis shows that differences by education level among all Christians are less stark, but they still contradict the idea that college graduates are less religiously active than others.
"Overall, 70 percent of Christians with college degrees have a high level of religious commitment on a scale incorporating four common measures of religious observance (worship attendance, frequency of prayer, belief in God and the self-described importance of religion in one's life), as do 73 percent of those with some college and 71 percent of those with no college experience," Pew reported.
More than half of Christians with a college degree (52 percent) attend religious services at least weekly, compared with 45 percent of Christians with some college experience and 46 percent of Christians who did not go beyond high school, according to Pew's analysis.
Among all U.S. adults, college-educated people are just as likely to attend worship services at least once a week as other, less educated Americans, Pew reported.
However, college-educated Americans are less likely to say religion is very important to them, to pray daily or to believe in God with absolute certainty — findings that support people's concerns about the relationship between higher education and religion.
Similarly, the patterns Pew found among Jews and religious "nones," or adults who don't affiliate with a particular religious community, showed that highly educated members of these groups were less religious than their less educated counterparts.
Nones with a college degree "are more likely to identify as atheist and agnostic and less likely than other nones to believe in God, pray and say that religion is very important in their lives," Smith said.
The findings for U.S. Muslims were more muddled. For example, around the same number of members of this community with a college degree (49 percent) and without any college experience (50 percent) attend worship services at least weekly, making those with some college experience (36 percent) the least religious by this measure.
"The picture really isn't clear at all" for Muslims, Smith said.
Pew's analysis does not attempt to explain what led to some of its intriguing findings, such as that highly educated Christians attend worship services more than others.
"The focus here is simply on describing the patterns found in recent Pew Research Center polling, particularly the very large U.S. Religious Landscape Study, which involved interviews with more than 35,000 Americans," Pew reported.
There are a variety of factors at play on college campuses that affect religious practice, noted Ellie Thompson, program specialist at Utah Campus Compact, an organization that encourages civic engagement among students.
"The most common (college) experience seems to be a ground shift. One hears new and alternative perspectives that they've never seen," she said. "Also, one finds a much more full schedule in which prioritizing spirituality takes a back seat to new social and academic pressures."
Because of these diverse influences, there's no simple way to account for the patterns that emerge in Pew's report, Schwadel said.
But complexity is actually a benefit of new and ongoing research on religion and education, he added, noting that people benefit from studying interesting nuances.
"Religion is not a monolithic entity," Schwadel said. Muslims, Mormons, Presbyterians, Jews and other believers respond to college differently, so broad assumptions about how college impacts faith do little more than make parents worry.