Study finds many first-year students value spirituality

Seventy-nine percent of students surveyed indicated a belief in God.

Cati Vanden Breul

The majority of first-year college students are searching for the meaning of life, according to a survey released last week by the University of California, Los Angeles.

The survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the university, looked at the spiritual and religious attitudes of 112,232 first-year students from 236 four-year colleges and universities.

Eighty percent of students said they had an interest in spirituality, with 79 percent indicating a belief in God.

“Those numbers don’t really surprise me,” said Aaron Crye, a University of Minnesota forest resources junior, who is Christian.

Many students grow up going to church or exposed to some type of religion, Crye said.

“So, coming in as freshmen, they will have connections,” he said.

But a pilot study of a much smaller group of first-year students, which was conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles researchers in 2003, indicated that by the time the students were juniors, approximately half of those who reported attending religious services regularly as freshmen no longer did two years later.

Many of the juniors said their professors never provided opportunities to talk about the meaning of life and did not encourage discussion about spiritual or religious matters.

According to this year’s survey, the majority of students wanted colleges to help them with issues of spirituality and religion. Sixty-nine percent reported it was essential or very important for colleges to help their self-understanding, and approximately half said they wanted colleges to encourage their spirituality.

“I think the statistics show that students coming into college are really looking and seeking for something ├ľ They really feel like there is something missing in life,” Crye said.

Colleges should encourage an open discussion of spirituality and religion, but he understands why that is sometimes hard to do at a public university, Crye said.

“It’s a public school, so they are careful to try not to offend anyone,” he said. “But they could help students discover what options are out there.”

Because the United States is a country with separation of church and state, public universities cannot encourage students to practice any specific religion, said Malik Harfi, Muslim Student Association vice president.

“Universities are not supposed to support any specific values or morals,” he said.

That means the responsibility falls on student organizations to help students find spirituality, Harfi said.

“It’s their responsibility to teach people and let them know,” he said. “You can argue which religion is the supposed truth, but in the end, belief in any religion does some benefit.”

Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, associate director of Hillel, the Jewish student center at the University of Minnesota, said it’s important to recognize the religious organizations at public universities are separate entities and are not funded by the university. But she said universities could do a better job helping students find those organizations on campus.

“It’s really important for students to find a spiritual community on campus,” Stiefel said.

Spirituality might be different from religion for some students, though, she said.

“They can be very much the same thing, but spirituality is not necessarily related to organized religion for everyone,” Stiefel said.

She said college is a great time for students to explore their spirituality and that they should take advantage of it.

The researchers plan to follow up with the students when they are juniors.