Study Examines College Students’ Spiritual Lives

Times Staff Writer

Karen Spurney acknowledges she hasn’t made much time for her spiritual life while attending UCLA.

She is busy with schoolwork, piano practice, sorority activities and other aspects of college life. That’s quite a shift for the 19-year-old sophomore, who said that before college she rarely missed Sunday Masses with her family and was an altar server at her Temple City church.

“I’m a Catholic on pause,” said Spurney, who is majoring in piano performance. “I didn’t come [to college] for the spiritual aspect. My goal is to experience as much as I can.”

According to a recent UCLA study, Spurney’s experience reflects that of many college students who have a high interest in spirituality and religion but are not necessarily looking for ways to explore or practice their beliefs.


The national study, based on a survey of more than 112,000 entering freshmen at 236 universities and colleges, found that 80% of the students expressed interest in spirituality. However, less than half said they considered it necessary to find ways to nurture their spiritual growth.

More than three-fourths of students -- 79% -- said they believed in God. But only 40% consider it “essential” or “very important” to follow religious teaching in everyday life.

“I think it’s the difference between beliefs and actions,” said Alexander W. Astin, coauthor of the report, “The Spiritual Life of College Students.”

“It’s not that the interior is less important, but they give external material things more priority. But if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll find students have a curiosity in spiritual development,” Astin said.

The survey was administered last fall by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, a research and policy organization that Astin founded more than 35 years ago.

Among those surveyed, 61% said they pray at least weekly and 28% pray daily. About four in five students said they had attended religious services in the past year. Seventy-six percent of students said they are searching for meaning or purpose in life.

Despite such interests, less than half of those surveyed said they feel secure in their current religious and spiritual views. Twenty-three percent said they are still “seeking,” and 15% said they feel conflicted.

To guide students on their path of self-discovery, Astin suggested colleges offer specialized courses that focus on personal goals and allow reflection on what is important to students.

“An atheist student needs that just as much as a believer to make sense of their lives and understand themselves better,” he said. “Having an academic basis for it would make it all the more powerful of an experience.”

Divya Chandran, a UCLA freshman, said a class on the history of India helped her feel connected to the spiritual side of Hinduism. The 19-year-old grew up practicing the cultural elements of the religion through song and dance, but never really understood its religious aspect, she said.

“It was really good being in that environment because I was able to question things that beforehand I don’t think I would have felt comfortable with asking in a temple,” Chandran said.

For Spurney, however, spirituality is a private issue that she would feel uncomfortable discussing in a class. She does talk about religion with her friends.

“It’s a very personal thing, and to put it in a public environment

Many students entering college may be grappling with how to observe beliefs instilled by their families, but learning how to survive college is usually more of a concern than going to church, said Rick Fraser, a Cal State Los Angeles professor of sociology who teaches a class on the sociology of religion.

“I think students might be interested in looking at how to fulfill those values they already have, but most are looking at how am I going to afford the textbooks or how do I live on my own?” he said.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of USC’s Office of Religious Life, said many students seek out religious groups or begin exploring their spirituality for guidance and peer support in handling the pressures of college life. Her office offers students 73 extracurricular religious or spirituality-based groups, each attracting 20 to 100 members.

“This is a very confusing world that young people are going into, and they’ve been under a lot of pressure to survive, to succeed with SATs, resume building, and they’re looking for coping mechanisms,” Laemmle said.

For example, Dionna Muldrow, 20, a USC junior, recalls that her freshman year was a test of her devotion to her Christian faith. Muldrow’s father serves as a deacon at their local nondenominational Christian church, and she was active in the church’s youth group and choir.

Muldrow joined USC campus religious organizations, including Saved by Grace Gospel Choir and InterVarsity Trojan Christian Fellowship, to help keep her active in her faith, but also to keep her grounded, she said.

“You get hit by so many different beliefs in college and other distractions that I needed that community of Christian believers to help keep me focused on the things that are important,” she said.

The UCLA report found that students showed a generous level of religious tolerance and acceptance for those outside their own beliefs. More than 80% of students agreed that “nonreligious people can lead lives that are just as moral as those of religious believers.” And 64% said most people can grow spiritually without being religious. Nearly two-thirds disagreed with the statement that people who don’t believe in God will be punished.

The report marks the second study for the “Spirituality in Higher Education: A National Study of College Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose.” The research is being funded with a $2-million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The institute plans a follow-up survey in 2007.



Survey results

Freshmen entering U.S. colleges and universities were asked to describe themselves:


To some or to a great extent:

Believe in sacredness of life: 83%

Have an interest in spirituality: 80%

Search for meaning/ purpose in life: 76%


It is essential or very important to seekopportunities to help me grow spiritually.: 47%



Believe in God: 79%

Pray: 69%

Occasionally or frequently attend religious services: 81%

It is essential or very important to follow religious teachings in everyday lif: 40%


How the poll was conducted: 112,232 freshmen entering 236 U.S. colleges last fall were given questionnaires at orientation or during the first week of school.

Source: Higher Education Research Institute. UCLA