Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Social Forces (2014), pp. 1–28; doi: 10.1093/sf/sou080


Copyright © 2014 Philip Schwadel; published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Used by permission. Published online August 1, 2014.


This article examines the changing association between higher education and reporting no religious affiliation in the United States. I argue that increases in higher education have led to a decline in the individual-level effect of college education on religious non-affiliation. Results from hierarchical age-period-cohort models using more than three and a half decades of repeated cross-sectional survey data demonstrate that the strong, positive effect of college education on reporti ti ng no religious affiliation declines precipitously across birth cohorts. Specifically, a bachelor’s degree has no effect on non-affiliation by the 1965–69 cohort, and a negative effect for the 1970s cohorts. Moreover, these across-cohort changes are strongly associated with aggregate growth in college education, and they vary considerably by religious origin. I conclude with a discussion of how the results relate to changes among the college-educated population, the religious deinstitutionalization of the non-college-educated, cultural diffusion across social statuses, and other cohort-appropriate social and cultural changes.