A new study reports that students become less likely to attend religious services while in college than they were in high school, although many of them still grapple with spiritual and ethical issues, USA Today reports.
Alexander and Helen Astin, retired UCLA professors, conducted the multi-year study of the college experience’s influence on spiritual development. Surveying more than 14,000 college students on 136 campuses at the start of their freshman year in 2004 and again at the end of their junior year in 2007, the study indicates that students become more interested in exploring the meaning and purpose of life as they progress through college.
However, students’ religious observance declines. Among incoming freshmen, 43.7 percent said they frequently attend religious services. By the end of their junior year, only 25.4 percent did. Though 20.2 percent of new freshmen said they did not attend services, 37.5 percent of juniors did.
The Astins argue that college education has been neglecting the “inner” development of students, in aspects such as their emotional maturity, self-understanding, and spirituality. "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 for the first time documented significant growth in students’ expressed desire to help others. 74.3 percent of juniors highly valued “helping others in difficulty,” an increase of more than 12 percent over the freshman number. 66.6 percent of juniors highly valued “reducing suffering and pain in the world,” another 12 percent increase over the percentage of freshmen. Another 63.8 percent of juniors said they supported “improving the human condition,” compared with 53.4 percent of freshmen.
But the percent change in students committed to “improving my understanding of other countries and cultures” was relatively unchanged: 52 percent of freshmen valued that commitment, while only 54.4 percent of juniors voiced support.
The Astins hope to explore in their next study how colleges can best encourage such growth. Their study found that classroom discussion of religious or spiritual matters was rare, with 60 percent of students reporting their professors never encouraged such discussion.
"These are qualities that colleges can and should care about," Alexander Astin said.