Study: College Students Seek Spirituality, Leave Pews

While college students are notorious for dropping out of the pews, a new study shows that attendance decline does not amount to a lesser interest in spirituality.

"Many students are emerging from the collegiate experience with a desire to find spiritual meaning and perspective in their everyday lives," said UCLA Emeritus Professor Alexander W. Astin.

A UCLA study, released Tuesday, found that college juniors are more likely to be engaged in a spiritual quest compared to when they first entered college as freshmen. The study showed that 41.2 percent of freshmen in 2004 reported they considered developing a meaningful philosophy of life "very important" or "essential." Three years later in 2007, a majority (55.4 percent) of the students agreed.

Moreover, 48.7 percent of freshmen in 2004 said "attaining inner harmony" is "very important" or "essential." The statistic jumped to 62.6 percent by 2007.

"The data suggest that college is influencing students in positive ways that will better prepare them for leadership roles in our global society," said Astin, co-principal investigator on the research project.

The rise in spirituality also comes as more students feel depressed, overwhelmed by everything they have to do, and feel that their life is filled with stress and anxiety over the three years in college.

"Spirituality in Higher Education: Students' Search for Meaning and Purpose" is the first longitudinal research project of its kind and is currently in its fifth year. Data was collected from over 14,000 students attending 136 colleges and universities nationwide. Researchers at The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA surveyed students as entering freshmen in the fall of 2004 and again in the late spring of 2007 at the end of their junior year.

The study found growth over the three years in students' spiritual values, such as integrating spirituality into their life and becoming a more loving person. Also, compared to three years ago, more juniors reported wanting to reduce pain and suffering in the world, being thankful for all that has happened to them, and higher levels of ecumenical worldview - including a commitment towards improving their understanding of other countries and cultures. The study further found that juniors are more likely to agree that "non-religious people can lead lives that are just as moral as those of religious believers" compared to when they entered college.

"Looking towards the future, we can envision a college educated workforce that is more inclusive and accepting of persons from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, and at the same time more caring and more collaborative," said UCLA Emeritus Professor Helen Astin, co-principal investigator on the project. "These qualities are critical to an effective workforce of the future."

Despite the rise in spirituality, college students are not making it out to religious services. While 38.6 percent attend religious services less frequently, only 7 percent increase their frequency of attendance after entering college. Attendance drops from 43.7 percent in high school to 25.4 percent in college, and the rate of non-attendance nearly doubles from 20.2 percent to 37.5 percent.

The study also found a slight decline in students who believe in God or engage in traditional religious activities. While 77.1 percent of freshmen reported believing in God, 74.2 percent of the students as juniors said the same. Prayer also decreased slightly from 69.2 percent among freshmen students to 67.3 percent three years later.

Among other findings, students were found to be more liberal in their political ideology and attitudes toward socio-cultural issues with 34.3 percent of juniors in 2007 saying they are liberal compared to 28.6 percent in 2004. Compared to when they were freshmen, juniors are more likely to agree that same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status, abortion should legal, casual sex is okay if people like each other, and the death penalty should be abolished.

The spirituality project was launched in part on the realization that the relative amount of attention that colleges and universities devote more attention to the "exterior" - accomplishments in fields of science, medicine, technology, and such - than the "interior" - sphere of values and beliefs, emotional maturity, self-understanding and spirituality.

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