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Spiritual Growth and Maturity

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While attendance at religious services has declined, college students nationwide report significant growth in spiritual and ethical matters during their first three years of college. A recent study of spirituality in higher education by researchers at The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA contains results worth paying attention to.

Entering freshmen show a high degree of involvement in religion. About four in five report that they attended religious services in the past year. They also discussed religion/spirituality with friends and family. Two in three say that they pray and that their religious beliefs “provide them with strength, support, and guidance.”

Nearly four students in five say they believe in God, 15% say they are not sure, while 7% say they don’t have a belief in God. Fewer than half of all students say they are “secure” in their religious views. About 25% report that they are “seeking.” 25% say they are either “doubting” or “conflicted” and 15% say they are “not interested.” Interestingly enough, well over half of the students say they do not feel obliged to follow their parents’ religious practices.

Compared to when they were entering freshmen, college juniors are more likely to be engaged in a spiritual quest, are more caring, and show higher levels of equanimity and an ecumenical worldview. Some of the changes in spirituality include:

  • 41.2% of freshmen in 2004 reported they considered developing a meaningful philosophy of life “very important” or “essential,” just three years later in 2007, 55.4% of those same students agreed.
  • “Attaining inner harmony” was reported as “very important” or “essential” by 48.7% when they were freshmen in 2004. This jumped to 62.6% by 2007.
  • “Integrating spirituality into my life” was reported as “very important” or “essential” by 41.8% of freshmen. This increased to 50.4% by junior year.
  • “Seeking beauty in my life” was reported as “very important” or “essential” by 53.7% of freshmen. This increased to 66.2% by junior year.
  • “Becoming a more loving person” was reported as “very important” or “essential” by 67.4% of freshmen. This increased to 82.8% by junior year.
  • “Helping others in difficulty” was reported as “very important” or “essential” by 62.1% of freshmen. This increased to 74.3% by junior year.
  • “Reducing pain and suffering in the world” was reported as “very important” or “essential” by 54.6% of freshmen. This increased to 66.6% by junior year.
  • “Being thankful for all that has happened to me” was reported as “very important” or “essential” by 52.0% of freshmen. This increased to 61.2% by junior year.
  • “Improving my understanding of other countries and cultures” was reported as “very important” or “essential” by 42.0% of freshmen. This increased to 54.4% by junior year.
  • “Improving the human condition” was reported as “very important” or “essential” by 53.4% of freshmen. This increased to 63.8% by junior year.

While their attention to spiritual and ethical values shows significant increases, the attendance of college students at religious services experienced a steep decline. The rate of frequent attendance drops from 43.7% in high school to 25.4% in college. The rate of non-attendance nearly doubles, from 20.2% to 37.5%. The reasons for these decreases range from having no parents around to diminished faith.

The majority of students believe in an afterlife (64.8%), in a higher being (83.4%), in more than one religious path (85.5%), and that students can develop religiously through interactions with diverse religious groups (82.7%). When it comes to religious and/or spiritual practice, students spend less than one hour each week at religious gatherings. This occurs off-campus more often than on-campus. Students spend a considerable amount of time socializing with students that share their same religious and/or spiritual affiliation (15 hours per week on average) and even more time socializing with those outside their religious group (23 hours per week on average).

When asked about the possible sources of religious and/or spiritual change, students most often indicated Maturity (44%), Personal Search and/or Study (45.2%), Taking Courses(27.3%), and Friends (26.4%) as being “very important” to their religious and/or spiritual changes.

Oddly enough, spiritual growth is different among college majors. Some findings include:

  • Level of religious commitment
    • Highest – Fine arts (62%), humanities (57%), and education (59%)
    • Lowest – Biological science (43%), history or political science (41%), and sociology (37%)
  • Level of religious and/or spiritual growth during the first three years of college
    • Education – close to half report high levels of growth
    • Journalism, health professions, and psychology – about one in three report high levels of growth
    • History and political science – one in four report high levels of growth
    • Physical and computer science – one in five report high levels of growth
  • Engaged in a spiritual quest
    • Most likely – Fine arts (43%) and humanities (42%)
    • Least likely – Business (24%), computer science (23%), and physical sciences (19%)
  • Express high levels of spiritual distress
    • Most likely – Fine arts (27%) and humanities (31%)
    • Least likely – Computer science (10%), business (15%), and education (17%)
  • Sees oneself as highly compassionate
    • Most likely –Sociology (33%), health professions (32%), and education (31%)
    • Least likely – History or political science (22%), journalism (22%), humanities (21%), and physical science (17%)

The UCLA study also indicated that students have high expectations for colleges and universities when it comes to their spiritual and emotional development. More than two-thirds say that it is “very important” or “essential” that their college enhances their self-understanding. Nearly half also say that it is “very important” or “essential” that colleges encourage their personal expression of spirituality.

A faculty survey found that 81% of college professors consider themselves to be spiritual persons. In addition, 69% are actively seeking out opportunities for spiritual development, and 70% embrace “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as a “very important” or “essential” personal goal. A majority of faculty believe that their own spirituality does have a place in academics, with 57% disagreeing that "the spiritual dimension of faculty members’ lives has no place in academics.” Only 30% agree that "colleges should be concerned with facilitating students’ spiritual development.


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