“Existential questions about life’s meaning and purpose are very much on students’ minds — [they] are paramount,” said psychologist Helen Astin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and a senior scholar at HERI. She served as the study’s co-principal investigator and wrote the book with her colleague and husband, Alexander W. Astin, the Allan M. Cartter Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and HERI founding director, and research project director Jennifer A. Lindholm, special assistant to Judith Smith, vice provost for undergraduate education.
Professor Helen Astin, co-principal investigator and co-author of “Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students' Inner Lives.”
The study is a first for HERI and for higher education research overall, Helen Astin said. Previous research, including a well-known college freshman survey the institute has conducted since 1966, have tended to look at students’ college experiences, educational aspirations and career concerns. For this study, Astin said, “We decided to look at something more internal, to ask the questions many students are already asking themselves.”
Faculty play a significant role in students’ spiritual development — albeit a role with which some faculty take issue. “There is the argument that these are religious matters that should be left to the church or family,” Astin said. “But in higher education we talk about the importance of being holistic, developing the whole person, so why not address spiritual concerns?”
The researchers view spirituality not merely as religious belief or practice, but as a multifaceted quality that combines a quest for answers to life’s “big questions,” a global worldview, compassion for and service to others, and the ability to feel centered even in the face of difficulties.
In 2004, more than 112,000 incoming freshmen at 236 colleges and universities were asked questions that included, “Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?,” “When you experience pain or suffering in your life, is spirituality a source of help for you?” and “Do you discuss spiritual issues/questions with others on campus …. and in any of your classes?” Three years later, more than 14,000 of these same students, now completing their junior year, took part in a follow-up survey. A number of them were also interviewed.
• Two-thirds of the students expressed a strong interest in spiritual matters.
• Students' religious engagement declined during college. Many found themselves questioning the religious beliefs they grew up with. Yet at the same time, they were actively engaged in a spiritual quest and became substantially more caring, tolerant and connected with others.
• Spiritual growth enhanced scholastic performance, psychological well-being, leadership development and satisfaction with college. It also enhanced students’ interest in postgraduate study.
• Students who were actively engaged in “inner work” by means of meditation, reflection and contemplation — sometimes in the context of academics, such as class discussions — showed the greatest degree of spiritual growth.
“The findings provide a powerful argument for the proposition that higher education should attend more to students’ spiritual development,
because spirituality is essential to students’ lives,” the authors state on the study website
Assisting students’ spiritual growth will help create a new generation who are more caring, more globally aware and more committed to social justice,” while also equipping students to cope with the tensions of today’s rapidly changing technological society.
Students’ spiritual quests are enhanced, the study showed, when faculty encourage discussions about meaning and purpose and life. Students report that classwork that engages them in reflective writing and journaling, as well as contemplative practices and collaborative group projects, are especially helpful. And certain academic disciplines tend to better lend themselves to students’ spiritual development — the fine arts, health professions, and biological and social sciences — while engineering, the physical sciences and other technical fields do not.
In a separate study conducted in 2006 by Astin and her colleagues, “We found that “faculty also care about spiritual issues. It’s the human condition.”
Of nearly 41,000 faculty at 421 colleges and universities, 81 percent reported that they consider themselves to be spiritual persons, 69 percent actively seek out opportunities for spiritual development, and 70 percent embrace “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as an essential or very important personal goal. Yet in the student survey, more than half said that their professors never encourage discussions of religious or spiritual matters, or provide opportunities to discuss the purpose and meaning of life.
Additional factors that encourage student spiritual development are college experiences that campuses like UCLA are strong in: a diverse student body; an emphasis on service learning and volunteerism in the community; multidisciplinary coursework; and opportunities to study abroad. All of these experiences allow students to meet others with different perspectives, Astin said, and “help students become more reflective about the importance of values and beliefs.”
The researchers will soon publish a follow-up compendium citing examples of how some 300 colleges are encouraging student spirituality. Among them is Carnegie Mellon University’s new Big Questions Project, in which faculty meet with students in residence halls to converse on such questions as, “What is love?” and “If there is a loving God, why do we have so much pain?” On the Florida State campus, a park is being created with areas designated for students to meditate and contemplate – very important in a world where students often report feeling overwhelmed, Astin said.
“Students tell us again and again that there’s no time for reflection, that between the pressures of school, working and technology — texting, talking, computers — the only time they can reflect is when they go to bed,” she said.
While college programs and faculty make some impacts in this arena, Astin said, “I think we have to become more intentional about it, with an eye not just on academics but on the inner student.”
View a video
of a presentation Astin made on Dec. 8 at UCLA’s Center for Women’s Studies.