Major 'Spiritual Life of College Students' study released by UCLA

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Results of the second phase in an ongoing major study of the spiritual lives of college students was released Wednesday, April 13 by a research center at UCLA. The study is a groundbreaking attempt to gain insight into the spiritual lives and concerns of students and improve how faculties and administrators at US colleges and universities address this part of their students' lives.

The study, named The Spiritual Life of College Students, was conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), a research center of higher education in the United States. HERI is based in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS) at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

HERI also produces a widely-cited annual Survey of Entering Freshman through its Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) program.

Study methodology

Co-Principal Investigators of the Project were Alexander Astin, Founding Director of HERI and widely-cited author of 20 books on higher education; and Helen Astin, psychologist, professor at UCLA, and author of 11 books and many articles on women, leadership and spirituality. The study was funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

The study has so far been undertaken in two major phases. First a pilot survey was taken in Spring 2003 by 3,680 undergraduates at 46 US colleges and universities.

Results from that survey were used to revise the questions, then the survey was given again in Fall 2004 to 112,232 students, the freshman classes of 236 US colleges and universities in the United States. The study included both quantitative (multiple choice) and qualitative focus group interview approaches. Copies of the questionnaires which were administered are available from the center's website.

HERI also conducted a secondary survey of faculty to assess their spiritual beliefs in conjunction with this study.

A follow-up survey of students is planned for Spring 2007 when they are expected to be juniors.

Goals of the research

Goals of the in-depth, multi-year project [1] are to:

  • Examine the patterns of spiritual growth experienced by students in their college years.
  • Involve colleges and universities in assisting students by providing opportunities for their spiritual growth.
  • Popularize the study results to college and university decision-makers and the mainstream media.

For purposes of the study, the spiritual aspect under discussion was taken to refer to varying concepts such as traditional beliefs, mystical experiences, and a personal sense of meaning and values, in other words, "our interiors, our subjective life, as contrasted to the objective domain of material events and objects." [2]

Resulting data

The differences and similarities in students' beliefs, activities and affiliations were examined along a number of dimensions, to assess the impact of the students beliefs on their daily lives. The results are summarized below. Note that the terms describing the various categories are taken verbatim from the survey results. Note also that some of the percentages add to more than 100% because the answers were not mutually exclusive and more than one answer could be checked.


The survey offered 20 choices of religious affiliation of various kinds, which may be broadly classified as Christian sects, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, Other, and None. The most numerous categories of response were:

  • 28% Roman Catholic
  • 17% Mainline Protestants such as Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran
  • 17% No religious preference
  • 13% Baptist
  • 11% Other Christian

The fact that the survey was administered only at US schools agrees with the expression of predominantly Christian opinion.


Here is a quick summary of some of the major beliefs and interests of the students, that may be seen to indicate their overall level of involvement with such issues:

  • 79% believe in God
  • 76% are searching for meaning/purpose in life
  • 80% are interested in spirituality


Some of the findings in this area include:

  • 81% attend religious services
  • 80% discuss religion or spirituality with friends
  • 69% pray

Although this percentage seems high, the proportion of US adults who pray is even greater at 82%, according to the Barna Group. [3] This fact is "not surprising" according to the author of the article in the Christian Science Monitor, given that college students are widely perceived as being hedonistic and less than serious.


Student's religious beliefs and affiliations were correlated with their political orientation in some predictable and some unexpected ways.

  • "Among students who show high levels of Religious Engagement, conservatives outnumber liberals by better than 3 to 1"
  • "However, liberals substantially outnumber conservatives among those with high scores on Ethic of Caring (2 to 1) and Ecumenical worldview (3 to 1)"

Unexpectedly however, very religious students were found to be more likely to oppose the death penalty and affirmative action, but to hold generally similar views to less-religious or spiritually inclined students on issues of race and sex.

The study also noted "sharp differences" in areas such as legalized abortion, casual sex, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of marijuana based on the students' level of religiousness or spirituality.

Religious tolerance

The findings on religious tolerance seem consistent overall with the practice of reconciling contradictions of religious faith in a modern, pluralistic society.

  • 83% say “non-religious people can be just as moral as religious believers”
  • 64% say that “most people can grow spiritually without being religious”

Confidence Levels

The student's personal level of confidence in their own belief was also studied:

  • 42% secure
  • 23% seeking
  • 15% conflicted
  • 10% doubting
  • 15% not interested


The survey also attempted to address how students feel about the role their schools should play in assisting their personal spiritual quest.

  • 67% said that it was important to them that their college "Helps you develop your personal values"
  • 48% said that it is “essential” or “very important” that their college "Encourages personal expression of spirituality"

The results seem to indicate a substantial demand for greater support of student's religious and spiritual pursuits by the colleges and universities they attend. This in turn suggests that future programs to address these kinds of needs may be developed at some colleges in response to the awareness raised by this study.