More Spiritual, But Not in Church

December 18, 2007

A national survey of entering college freshmen in 2004 found that most came to college with a goal to grow spiritually. A follow-up survey of students at the end of their junior year this spring suggests that while attendance at religious services sharply declines during college, students do in fact significantly progress along their spiritual quests throughout their first three years – but often without the help of their professors, who most students say never encourage discussions of religious or spiritual matters.

“The real change is relative to spiritual qualities – the growth in self-understanding, caring about others, becoming more of a global citizen and accepting others of different faiths,” said Helen Astin, an emeritus professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-principal investigator for the study. “I see it as very good news, to see that our students change in this way.”

Astin explained that the researchers define religion “primarily as belonging in a community of faith and following the dogma and the principles of a particular faith,” while they define spirituality more broadly “as a search for meaning and purpose in one’s life” and the posing of existential questions. Overall, students show "enormous growth" on indicators of spiritual development from freshman to junior year. College juniors, for instance, report prioritizing life goals like “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” at higher rates than entering freshmen (The proportion who describe that particular goal as either “very important” or “essential” climbed from 41.2 percent in the 2004 survey of freshmen to 55.4 percent in the 2007 survey of juniors). Researchers find an increased "ethic of caring" among juniors, an increased sense of equanimity, and also an increased "ecumenical worldview" premised upon the acceptance of people of different faiths and backgrounds. Among the specific findings:

Students who.... 2004 Survey of Freshmen 2007 Survey of Juniors
Say integrating spirituality into their lives is very important or essential 41.8% 50.4%
Say "attaining inner harmony" is very important or essential 48.7% 62.6%
Say "becoming a more loving person" is very important or essential 67.4% 82.8%
Endorse the life goal of "reducing pain and suffering in the world" 54.6% 66.6%
Endorse the life goal of "helping to promote racial understanding" 27.3% 37.5%
Say they see "each day, good or bad, as a gift" 38.9% 45.5%
Want to improve their understanding of other countries and cultures 42% 55.4%
Believe that "non-religious people can lead lives that are just as moral" as religious believers' 83.3% 90.5%

As for matters of religion, researchers find that religious beliefs change only slightly during college, while religious observance drops dramatically. The proportion of students who believe in God dipped slightly from 77.1 percent freshman year to 74.2 percent junior year, while there were slight increases on other indicators of belief (see chart below). 38.6 percent of students report that they attend religious services less frequently than they did in high school, while just 7 percent say they attend more often as college students. The rate of non-attendance increased from 20.2 to 37.5 percent.

“We’re not surprised, really,” Astin said of the declines in the attendance. “They’re not part of the home and community where other friends and family and relatives attend church on Sundays.” Among the results relative to religious beliefs and practices:

Students who.... 2004 Survey of Freshmen 2007 Survey of Juniors
Pray 69.2% 67.3%
Believe in life after death at least "to some extent" 85.4% 86.6%
Say "seeking to follow religious teachings" in everyday life is very important or essential 39.4% 40.6%
Frequently attend religious services 43.7% 25.4%
Rate themselves as above average in "religiousness" 33.8% 30.5%

Researchers at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute find, however, that despite increased student interest in all things spiritual, 59.7 percent of students say that their professors never "encouraged discussions of religious/spiritual matters." Just 19.6 percent say their professors "frequently encouraged exploration of questions of meaning and purpose," while 52.4 percent say their professors do so occasionally. Another 28 percent say they never do.

"When we ask faculty whether they think spirituality and discussions of spiritual matters have a place in the academy, they feel very uncomfortable," said Astin. "On the other hand, when we ask them, 'Do you think you play any role in helping students develop as moral human beings,' they feel very strongly" that colleges should play a role in that regard, she said. As part of the survey process, researchers collected data from faculty as well, and Astin said the next stage of the analysis will focus on the ways in which faculty beliefs and practices influence student spiritual development.

The 2004 freshman survey involved 112,232 entering students at 236 four-year colleges, while the 2007 survey of juniors involved a sub-sample of 136 of those same institutions -- with freshman to junior year data available for 14,527 students. The institutions are intended to be representative of higher education as a whole and include religious colleges. Astin said that while researchers have not yet broken down the data by institutional type, they plan to do so in the future.

In addition to collecting information on spiritual and religious values, UCLA researchers asked students about community service (participation rates decline), political viewpoints (students tend to shift to the left of the spectrum during college) and physical and psychological well-being (which drops). More specifics follow:

Students Say They.... 2004 Survey of Freshmen 2007 Survey of Juniors
Political Attitudes    
Are liberal/far-left 28.6% 34.3%
Are conservative/far-right 26.6% 25.1%
Are middle-of-the-road 44.7% 40.6%
Agree that wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do currently 57.3% 60.2%
Agree that same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status 53.8% 66.1%
Agree that abortion should be legal 51.9% 59.7%
Charitable Involvement    
Donate money to charity 69.9% 74.7%
Participate in community service 82.1% 73.8%
Take a course involving community service 50.3% 33%
Health and Well-Being    
Are frequently depressed 9.2% 12.3%
Frequently feel that their lives are "filled with stress and anxiety" 26% 41.5%
Exercise for more than five hours per week 52% 28.8%
Drink wine or liquor at least occasionally 52.7% 81%

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