New Study Finds College Students Are More Spiritual


A recent study by two UCLA professors shows that an increasing number of undergraduates express a desire to explore the meaning and purpose of life as they progress through college. (Craig Calefate/The Observer)

Published: January 31, 2008

FCLC—When it comes to answering life’s many challenging questions, college students are now seeking spiritual answers, according to a recent study by two University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) professors. The study focused on how the college experience influences spiritual development, and it ultimately found that undergraduates are indeed quite spiritual and an increasing number of undergraduates express a desire to explore the meaning and purpose of life as they progress through college.

“I’m not sure if I agree with this study, but I think it’s more possible at religious-affiliated schools that encourage students to explore the concepts of spirituality and have resources to do so,” said Danielle Cecala, FCLC ’09. “For example, at Fordham, religion courses are a mandatory part of the curriculum. Campus Ministry encourages the use of the chapel, for all religious/spiritual purposes, as both Christian masses and Buddhist meditations are held there.”

Cecala continued, “I definitely became more spiritual in college, but not because of classes I’ve taken. College itself has not influenced me too much, but it’s just more of me growing up and exploring things on my own terms, as I’ve been in Catholic school for my entire life.”

The study found that 74.3 percent of college juniors thought “helping others in difficulty” was “very important” or “essential,” compared to a smaller 62.1 percent of freshmen.  Another statistic shows that 54 percent of juniors said they were faithful to “improving [their] understanding[s] of other countries and cultures,” compared to a lesser 52 percent of freshmen.

Michael Gonzalez, FCLC ’09, said he disagrees with the report. “I am a spiritual person.  I’d say that I never really changed. Being in a Jesuit school and being required to take theology courses, among others, just led me to a deeper understanding of what I believe in. It never made me more spiritual,” he said. “Generally, I disagree with the report. I don’t see where college influences spiritual growth. It seems more likely that it is a coincidence since I believe that people are just maturing, thus, finding themselves with their spirituality,”
he added.

Although some Fordham students aren’t buying the report, the study reported “significant growth” among U.S. college students in their willingness to be a part of a spiritual quest, to be more caring and to develop a general worldview.

“I wouldn’t say I’m very spiritual,”  said Sophia Azizi, FCLC ’09, a practicing Muslim student. “I did not become more spiritual in college, so that is not true for me but could be true for other people,” Azizi said.

Some students seem to agree with what the study concludes, witnessing their own friends change during the college experience and therefore seeing the rationale and basis of the report more clearly.

“I think that as students move away from their families, they need a larger sense of belonging,” said Geneviéve Martin, FCLC ’10. “They may find that sense of belonging at their colleges; they may find that in religion. I have a number of friends who have gone from being reform to conservative as they’ve entered college,” Martin said.

Sean MacCarthy, teaching associate of philosophy at Fordham, said he believes that the media is responsible for the growing number of spiritual students.

“The increase doesn’t surprise me, as it seems the media in general tend to be selling nominal ‘spirituality’,” MacCarthy said. “Oprah talks about it, many self-help types—‘Dr. Phil’ personalities—talk about it; pop-stars talk about it, such as Madonna with Kabbalah. Yoga is a popular form of exercise that conveys it as well. This generation seems more guided by media trends than any previous and thus their belief probably follows the media trends,” MacCarthy said.

Joan Cavanagh, associate director of Campus Ministry at FCLC, was not surprised by the results of the study either.

“I do believe that college students are deeply spiritual, even if they choose not to affiliate with organized religion. Many students are searching for ways to express their spirituality. I think that college is a wonderful time to come to a deeper appreciation of spirituality and religion,” Cavanagh said. “Their findings are consistent with what I have seen in Campus Ministry. The spirit is alive and well!”