Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More College Students Seeking Spiritual Answers

From an USA Today article by Mary Beth Marklein...
"Students may be less likely to attend religious services while in college than they were as high school students, but that doesn't mean they're not wrestling with spiritual and ethical issues, a study suggests. An increasing number of undergraduates express a desire to explore the meaning and purpose of life as they progress through college, it says.

The findings surprised and delighted the study's authors, Alexander and Helen Astin, retired UCLA professors who are engaged in a multi-year study of how the college experience influences spiritual development. It is funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The Astins argue that higher education has been neglecting the "inner" development of students, such as their emotional maturity, self-understanding and spirituality.

Now, their most recent study, based on a survey of more than 14,000 college students on 136 campuses at the start of their freshman year in fall 2004 and again at the end of their junior year in spring 2007, appears to challenge some common assumptions. "Colleges are considered sort of bastions of secularism," Alexander Astin says. The findings suggest that "we have every reason to believe that the colleges are actually fostering some of these changes."

The study reinforces other research showing a decline in attendance at religious services among college students. Among incoming freshmen, for example, 43.7% said they frequently attend services; by the end of their junior year, that was down to 25.4%. Also, 37.5% of juniors said they did not attend services, up from 20.2% who said so as new freshmen. But the Astins' study for the first time documents what they call "significant growth" among college students nationwide in the desire to engage in a spiritual quest, to be more caring, and to develop an ecumenical worldview.
Among findings:
•74.3% of juniors said "helping others in difficulty" was "very important" or "essential," compared with 62.1% of freshmen.
•66.6% of juniors said "reducing pain and suffering in the world" was "very important" or "essential," compared with 54.6% of freshmen.
•54.4% of juniors said they were committed to "improving my understanding of other countries and cultures," compared with 52.0% of freshmen.
•63.8% of juniors said they supported "improving the human condition," compared with 53.4% of freshmen.
It's not clear exactly how the college experience contributes to a student's spiritual development. The next stage of the Astins' research will explore how colleges can best encourage such growth.
One area of potential opportunity: in the classroom. Nearly 60% of students said their professors never encouraged discussions of religious or spiritual matters, and fewer than 20% said their professors "frequently" encouraged exploration of questions of meaning and purpose.
"These are qualities that colleges can and should care about," Alexander Astin says.
Rebecca Chopp, president of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., says colleges need to adapt. For decades, "higher education has been nervous about talking about religion," she says. Now, "we're probably in a time of transition. … What's different is globalization, the presence of world religions."

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