Surveys show students expect colleges to help in exploring life’s meaning

For some young adults, spirituality goes hand in hand with religious practice. For others, it is a substitute.

Regardless, young Americans are actively engaged in spiritual questions, two new surveys indicate, even if they may not be exploring them in traditional ways.

One of the surveys, of more than 100,000 freshmen who started college last fall, found four in five reporting an interest in spirituality, with three in four searching for meaning or purpose in life, and the same proportion discussing the meaning of life with friends.

The students starting college expected their institutions to help them explore such questions. And while an even higher proportion, more than 90 percent, said they expect their college to prepare them for employment, the authors noted that the results challenge the view of young Americans as crassly materialistic.

“They are looking inwardly and they are searching for ways to cultivate their inner selves,” said Helen Astin, professor emeritus of higher education and a senior scholar at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, which produced the survey of college freshman released Wednesday in Washington.

A separate survey of 1,325 18-25 year-olds released earlier this week by Reboot, a Jewish networking group, and several collaborating organizations, emphasizes the degree to which young people are confronting religious issues informally, through conversations and even Christian rock music rather than formal religious practice.

While 44 percent of respondents called themselves “religious,” 35 percent said they are “spiritual but not religious” and 18 percent said neither.

At Roanoke College, in Salem, Va., where he has been chaplain for more than 20 years, Paul Henrickson said he is quite familiar with the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon.

“You have a lot of kids that understand in their hearts that there is a mystery about life that is larger than they are and larger than they understand, and they would call that ‘spiritual.’ And they are very interested in that,” Henrickson said.

But, he added, “they pursue that in private ways” and “in kind of a shotgun approach. They’ll look at all kinds of things from Eastern religions to yoga to New Age stuff to the standard Christianity. But they are unlikely to have that solid commitment to a religious institution (like) church membership.”