WASHINGTON – A large majority of college students are seeking more than a higher education from their colleges and universities,researchers said in a study released by the University of California,Los Angeles.
A lot of them are seeking guidance as they ponder spirituality,religion and the meaning of life,said Helen S. Astin,associate director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute.
“In some ways,our study has taken us by surprise,” Astin said at a press briefing Wednesday. “Today's college students are in a serious search for a deeper meaning in their lives. … It is indeed an interesting generation.”
The study began two years ago and surveyed more than 110,000 freshmen at 236 colleges and universities around the country,with 17 percent considered religious private schools. The researchers did not provide the survey's margin of error.
The results depict a sharp contrast to stereotyped views of college students as apathetic,money-driven youths,Astin said.
Half of the students considered themselves “above average” in areas of spirituality,and 79 percent claimed a belief in God. More than 70 percent admitted to searching for the meaning of life.
By comparison,a May 2004 Gallup Poll found that 84 percent of 1,000 adults surveyed said religion was very important or important in their lives. Half identified themselves as Protestant and nearly a quarter said they were Catholics. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
For students,spiritual well-being and physical health showed strong correlations,said researcher Jennifer A. Lindholm,and those who reported high levels of religious struggle were also more likely to drink alcohol,smoke and not maintain a healthy diet compared to students who reported low levels of religious struggle.
Alexander W. Astin,director of the Higher Education Research Institute,said previous studies have not comprehensively studied the role of religion and spirituality in the lives of college students. Those studies were usually funded by religious organizations,said Astin,who is married to Helen Astin.
“I think this is one of the things that motivated us to take on this study,” he said. “I think it has to do with the assumption … that this is not legitimate territory to look into.”
But the high interest in spirituality and religion is something higher education institutions should be paying attention to,Alexander Astin said. More than two-thirds of the students surveyed said they have high expectations for the role their colleges and universities will play in their spiritual development.
“Colleges are going to have to offer a lot more,” he said.
Students reported affiliations with 19 different religions,with more claiming to be Roman Catholic than any other religion,28 percent. Episcopalian,Presbyterian,Methodist and Lutheran made up 17 percent of students.
About 2 percent said they were Jewish,with 1 percent each saying they were Buddhist,Eastern Orthodox,Hindu or Islamic. Those who follow Quaker religious practices made up the smallest group,0.2 percent,and 17 percent of the students said they had no religious preference.
College freshmen also seemed more willing to try new religions,Alexander Astin said. According to the study,only 9 percent of students said they were compelled to follow in their parent's religious practices.
While students seem to have strong inclinations toward spirituality,he said,previous studies carried out at the Higher Education Research Institute have shown that students are more likely to become less spiritual by their third year of college.
“There is a dramatic falling off of religious participation in the undergraduate years,” he said.
Students living away from their parents for the first time also show a significant decline in the church attendance,Astin said,“but not the search for spirituality.”