Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

UCLA Study: Students Become More Spiritual in College

Photo Credit: Peter M. Fisher/Corbis

With a six-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute conducted a longitudinal study to assess the spirituality of college students during their undergraduate years. The study finds that while attendance at religious services decreased dramatically for most students between their freshman and junior years, the students’ overall level of spirituality, as defined by the researchers, increases. On hot-button social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, the study finds that students become increasingly liberal. Alexander W. Astin, co-principal investigator on the study, spoke with the Pew Forum about the study’s conclusions.

Featuring: Alexander W. Astin, Allan M. Cartter Professor Emeritus of Higher Education at the University of California; Co-Principal Investigator, Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose.

Interviewer: Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Publishing, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In this Q&A: Defining “religiosity” and “spirituality” Students become less religious, more spiritual Changes in students’ political outlook Graphic: Study findings

Alexander W. Astin

Your study makes a distinction between religiosity and spirituality. Religiosity has been examined here at the Pew Forum and elsewhere by measuring such things as attendance at religious services or frequency of prayer. That’s fairly straightforward. But how do you measure spirituality?

Spirituality has to do with the students’ search for meaning and purpose, with their values development and with their self-understanding. Spirituality is primarily an interior quality, so most of our spirituality measures have to do with values, attitudes and beliefs.

To give you some examples, “equanimity” is probably the prototypic quality of the spiritual person, and so we have developed a measure of equanimity. We also have a measure we call “ethic of caring,” the extent to which one cares about the condition of others and the condition of the world. Then there is a measure called “ecumenical worldview,” which addresses the extent to which the person identifies him- or herself with something larger.

Compassion, of course, is an inner quality that keeps coming up when people talk about spirituality and spiritual people, so we came up with a measure we call “compassionate self-concept.” It is the extent to which the person sees him- or herself as a compassionate person. We have a behavioral measure that assesses participation in some kind of charitable activity. Then we have a direct measure that we call “spirituality,” which is basically the extent to which the person views himself and others in spiritual terms. Finally, we have a measure of the extent to which the person is actively engaged in a “spiritual quest,” in a search for meaning, purpose and value. That’s one of our most interesting measures.

Your study shows that attendance at religious services decreased dramatically for most students between the time they were freshmen and juniors, yet you conclude that the juniors were more engaged in a spiritual quest than they were as freshmen. This finding seems counterintuitive.

It’s important to realize that we don’t equate religiousness with spirituality; there are students who are highly spiritual but not necessarily religious. The finding surprised us, however, because the two measures are related: Spiritual people tend to be religious and visa versa. If one declines, you’d expect the other to decline as well, but that didn’t happen. We’re looking for explanations of the apparent contradictions in the college experience and we’ve settled on two likely possibilities.

UCLA Study Findings

One is the fact that many of these students are away from home for the first time, and we suspect that, for some students, religious observance before college is influenced by the presence of the family. The second explanation has to do with the academic demands of the college experience: A greater deal of time is invested in studies during college than before college.

So, in other words, students are probably too busy to attend church, synagogue or mosque?

Yes, and the social pressure to attend is less for many of these students because they’re away from home for the first time.

Your study shows that these students also felt more depressed, overwhelmed and anxious as juniors than they did as entering freshmen. What explains this development?

We believe this has to do with the stresses that they’re experiencing in the academic realm and possibly in the area of socialization. When students are on their own and dealing with issues of sexual development, academic pressures and socialization, these things can lead to greater stress. This is our current interpretation but we are, I might add, currently digging into this in more depth to see if we can identify some of the experiential factors in the undergraduate experience that contribute to this increased stress.

The study found that nearly three-of-four students who are now juniors agreed that “most people can grow spiritually without being religious.” That’s up 12 percent from when these students were freshmen.

I think you have to realize that we have, on the one hand, the students’ individual faiths and practices, and on the other hand, their viewpoints about students who might follow a different faith or no faith. To us, this is a positive finding in the sense that students display a good deal of tolerance for differing approaches to religion and spirituality on the part of their peers. In other words, they’re not imposing their own standards upon their fellow beings.

Does that mean that they’re seeing the world in more relative terms and in less absolute terms?

Yes, I would say so, and this is consistent with the finding that their tendency to embrace an ecumenical worldview also increases during college.

This would seem to be bad news for many organized religions, especially the ones making truth claims.

Not necessarily. We have organizations like the National Council of Churches and other worldwide religious organizations that try to think about how to enhance understanding across different religions and faiths. Looking ahead to the condition of the world down the road, one would hope that this kind of understanding and tolerance would increase with time. That, of course, may not fit certain belief systems, but I think, on balance, that it’s reassuring to see that the college experience is associated with an increase in this kind of tolerance and understanding of the other.

How have these students changed politically while in college?

The changes in their political beliefs are small, but they tend to move in a liberal direction. Students at the end of their junior year are slightly more liberal, not only in the way they label themselves on a liberal-conservative spectrum but also in their attitudes on most social issues.

What are their views on some of the hot-button social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage?

There has been a tendency in our recent freshmen surveys for students to become more accepting and tolerant of issues relating to homosexuality. In other words, this generation of students is much more tolerant and accepting than earlier generations. This particular group of students we’re studying shows an even greater acceptance as they continue in college and that’s interesting because this finding is replicated across all kinds of institutions, from evangelical colleges to the most secular institutions.

When it comes to abortion, again, there is an increased acceptance of keeping abortion legal.

This sounds like good news for Democrats and bad news for Republicans.

This is something that one can judge in various ways, but, obviously, the people who tend toward a liberal persuasion may be reassured by this. I might add that we have done, with another longitudinal study, a six-year, post-college follow-up of the students’ values, and some of these political changes that occur during college seem to revert back to where they were when the students were freshmen.

Is a similar liberalization seen among people in the same age group who don’t go to college?

This we don’t know, but it would appear that the political changes during college are influenced by the peer group and that this is the major source of influence on political leanings. The faculty doesn’t appear to make much of a difference in this. We have looked at that in great depth, and it appears the main source of influence is the peer group.

Have you come to any conclusions, after reviewing this data on spirituality, as to how colleges could change in the future to encourage more spiritual exploration?

We’re going to defer final judgment on that kind of question until we have more understanding of how and why the changes occur, but at this point I think it’s safe to say that there are some things that colleges can do to encourage students to do more spiritual exploration. I think service learning is probably the most obvious current practice that could be expanded. The experience of participating in community service as part of an academic course does appear to enhance some of the qualities related to spirituality. It encourages students to be more reflective and to write and converse on issues related to their spiritual development. The use of study abroad appears to be another college activity that helps students’ spiritual development. Finally, the so-called introductory freshman 101 courses, if properly designed, get students to consider issues of meaning, purpose and value as it relates to their college experience.

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fresh data delivery Saturday mornings

Icon for promotion number 1

Sign up for The Briefing

Weekly updates on the world of news & information