God and Freshmen

Students are deeply committed to exploring their spiritual and religious lives, but don't get much help from colleges, researchers say.
April 14, 2005

Stereotype has it that freshmen arrive at colleges looking for good parties or good career paths. Most, however, are also looking for meaning in life -- and for God.

Researchers released data Wednesday that offers the most complete portrait to date of new college students' attitudes about spirituality and religion, and the study suggests that freshmen care far more about spiritual matters than is widely believed. More than three-quarters of freshmen say they are looking for meaning in life, for example, and more than two-thirds engage in prayer.

The statistics come from surveys completed in the fall by 112,000 students attending 236 four-year colleges and universities. The study was conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles and is part of a multiyear effort to track what happens to students' spirituality while they are in college.

The students who were studied this year will be the subject of a follow-up project when they are juniors. But the UCLA researchers have already done a pilot project on college juniors that suggests that while students' interest in spiritual matters remains high during college, their religious practice shrinks and they get relatively little encouragement in the classroom to think about spirituality.

Alexander W. Astin, one of the lead investigators on the study, said that it offered "a clear message" to colleges to do more to help students navigate issues of faith. He said that a key message of the great works that are the foundation of the liberal arts was "know thyself," and that students aren't getting much guidance in that area from their colleges.

Astin and his fellow researchers said that they were surprised -- and pleased -- to see how much students care about matters of faith and spirituality. They asked students a series of questions to measure students' religiousness and spirituality, stressing that they did not see those two as identical. Among the results:

Indicator of Spirituality Percent of Freshmen
  Believe in sacredness of life 83
  Have an interest in spirituality 80
  Search for meaning/purpose in life 76
  Discuss meaning of life with friends 74
Indicator of Religiousness  
  Believe in God 79
  Pray 69
  Attend services occasionally or frequently 81
  Discussion religion/spirituality with friends 80

The study also examined the relationship between an active religious life and certain political attitudes, and found such a relationship in some cases, but not others. For instance, students were classified as either having either high or low levels of religious engagement, which is measured by attending services, praying and reading sacred texts.

Students with low levels of religious engagement were more than twice as likely students with high levels to believe that abortion should be legal, that sex "is OK if people really like each other," and that same-sex couples should have the right to marry.

But on other issues, students with high and low levels of religious engagement were relatively close. These issues include affirmative action in college admissions (small majorities of religious and nonreligious students favor its abolition) and gun control (large majorities of both groups favor it).

The UCLA researchers also asked students their religious preferences. The following religions were those named by at least 2 percent of those surveyed: Roman Catholic (28 percent); None (17 percent); Baptist (13 percent); Other Christian, a category that tends to include non-denominational Protestants, many of them evangelical (11 percent); Methodist (6 percent); Lutheran (5 percent); Presbyterian (4 percent); Church of Christ (3 percent); Episcopalian (2 percent); and Jewish (2 percent).

Students were then analyzed on a variety of measures of religious practice and spirituality. The study found two clusters of people of certain faiths who generally shared certain other characteristics. One cluster -- made up of Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists and Other Christian groups -- is strongly religious and spiritual. The other cluster -- made up of Unitarians, Buddhists, Hindus, Episcopalians, Jews and Eastern  Orthodox -- tends to be much less religious, but is high on having an ecumenical world view and on charitable involvement.

Astin, who is known for his annual survey of freshman attitudes on a range of issues, said that the long-term trend in religious affiliation is that mainline Protestant groups have been losing students, while more students identify themselves as having no religion or as evangelical Christians.

Across religious faiths and levels of religiousness, the UCLA study found a high degree of tolerance for people of different beliefs. Eighty-three percent of freshmen, for example, said that they agree that "nonreligious people can lead lives that are just as moral as those of religious believers." And even though a clear majority of students believe in God, 63 percent reject a statement that "people who don't believe in God will be punished."

Many students also expect colleges to help them make sense of spiritual, ethical and religious issues. Of freshmen in the study, 69 percent said that it was essential or very important for their colleges to help their self-understanding, 67 percent to help them develop personal values, and 48 percent to encourage their spirituality.

Those students may be in for a disappointment. The researchers did a pilot study in 2003 of college juniors. And many of those students expressed dismay about the level of discussion of spiritual issues at college. More than half said that their professors never provide opportunities to discuss the meaning and purpose of life. And nearly two-thirds said that professors never encourage discussion of spiritual or religious matters.

The pilot project -- which had a much smaller sample than the freshman study and the planned follow-up to that study -- also tried to determine how religious experience changes while students are in college. Interest in spiritual issues remains high. But religious observance takes a hit.

More than half of juniors reported that they had attended services regularly when they started college, but only 29 percent reported doing so by the time they were juniors.


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