Number of College Freshman Leaving Their Faith Has Skyrocketed

A recent nationwide survey found that the number of freshmen attending America’s colleges who have left their faith over the past three decades has skyrocketed.

After analyzing the religious affiliation trends of first-year college students, Computer Science professor Allen Downey – who teaches at Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts – disclosed that the statistics from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s (CIRP) 2016 Freshman Survey conducted at UCLA indicate that the number of students identifying as “nones,” who do not belong to a religion, has dramatically increased.

“The number of college students with no religious affiliation has tripled in the last 30 years – from 10 percent in 1986 to 31 percent in 2016 – according to data from the CIRP Freshman Survey,” Downey reported in the Scientific American. “Over the same period, the number who attended religious services dropped from 85 percent to 69 percent.”

Conducting the survey since 1966, CIRP annually asks incoming freshman about their beliefs, backgrounds and attitudes concerning their religious preference, as well as their attendance at religious services and other behaviors. In 2016, researchers surveyed more than 137,000 first-time students arriving at 184 colleges across the United States to find that students are increasingly falling away from their faith.

“These trends provide a snapshot of the current generation of young adults,” Downey noted. “They also provide a preview of rapid secularization in the U.S. over the next 30 years. [T]he number of students whose religious preference is ‘None’ has changed over time. The retreat from religion starts around 1990 and accelerates, averaging almost 1 percentage point per year.”

Not a total drop

Even though many large drops in numbers have been witnessed in freshmen who proclaim to be Catholic, Baptist and Methodist, a rise was seen among those from nondenominational churches.

“Most of this growth comes at the expense of Catholicism, which dropped from 32 percent to 23 percent, and mainstream Protestant denominations including Baptists (from 17 percent to 7 percent), and Methodists (from 9 percent to 3 percent),” Downey divulged. “At the same time, the number of students choosing ‘Other Christian’ increased from 5 percent to 13 percent.”

Other trends were discovered when comparing differently grouped colleges and universities from coast to coast.

“The fraction of ‘Nones’ is higher at universities (36 percent) than at four-year colleges (26 percent), mostly because more colleges than universities are religiously affiliated,” Downey revealed from the study. “Not surprisingly, religious colleges are more religious, with only 17 percent Nones; and historically black colleges even more so, with 11 percent Nones.”

More and more freshmen are placing themselves in categories that disenfranchise them from any particular faith.

“Starting in 2015, the CIRP survey includes ‘Agnostic’ and ‘Atheist’ in the list of religious preferences, along with ‘None,’” Downey noted. “In 2016, the breakdown of students with no religious affiliation is 8.5 percent Agnostic, 6.4 percent Atheist, and 16 percent None, with all three categories up slightly since 2015.”

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Michael F. Haverluck