Research Symposium

The Spirituality in Higher Education Project team at UCLA solicited proposals from investigators to conduct original research using our national longitudinal data base on undergraduates in the Spring of 2009. The purpose of this competition was to stimulate and encourage the study of students' spiritual development in higher education by engaging qualified scholars in original research that utilized these data.

Proposals were reviewed by a panel of experts in the field, using the following criteria:

The project funded 12 of the 68 proposals we received. The following lists brief abstracts from each of the research teams involved in this competition:



College Experiences, Well-Being, and Spiritual Development of
Religiously Privileged and Religiously Marginalized College Students

Nicholas A. Bowman and Jenny L. Small

Although previous research has examined student development among various groups of underrepresented college students, little is known about the development of students who are religious minorities. This study explores how several forms of religious minority/majority status are related to college religious experiences and the development of spirituality and well-being. Hierarchical linear modeling analyses show that students’ religious affiliations are strongly associated with religious engagement and faculty support for spiritual/religious development, and these experiences are positively associated with subsequent student outcomes. In addition, affiliation with a marginalized religious group—or having no religion affiliation at all—has an indirect, negative effect on well-being and spiritual development. Moreover, a number of these relationships also vary by institutional type (i.e., secular, Catholic, and non-Catholic religious schools). Implications for research and practice are discussed.

Back to top


Reciprocal Influences of Spirituality, Religious Commitment and Prosocial Development During College

Jay W. Brandenberger and Nicholas A. Bowman

Some evidence suggests that prosocial attitudes and behaviors are positively related to religion and spirituality, but it is unclear whether spirituality and/or religious commitment promote prosocial orientations, or vice-versa. These potential linkages may be particularly salient during college, as many students are exploring matters of faith and forming personal identities. Using data from the Spirituality in Higher Education study and hierarchical linear modeling analyses, we found that spiritual identification at college entry is associated with gains on measures of ethic of caring, charitable involvement, and compassionate self-concept. Moreover, spiritual identification may explain the relationship between religious commitment and prosocial outcomes. Conversely, initial prosocial orientation was not associated with changes in spiritual identification and religious commitment between the freshman and junior years. Implications for psychology and higher education are discussed.

Back to top


The Impact of Campus Context, College Encounters, and Religious/Spiritual Struggle on Ecumenical Worldview Development by Gender, Race, and Worldview

Alyssa Bryant

Using a national longitudinal dataset that spans the first through third years of the college experience, the study employed structural equation modeling to analyze how students develop an ecumenical worldview. The validity of general college effects for students of different genders, races/ethnicities, and worldviews was explored to shed light on the nuanced nature of ecumenical worldview development in diverse populations. The findings suggest that immersion experiences and the salience of religion and spirituality in academic encounters provoke religious/spiritual struggles, which in turn enhance ecumenical worldview. Differences in the applicability of the model by gender and race/ethnicity are minimal in comparison to differences by worldview.

Back to top


Longitudinal Relationships between Spirituality, Religiousness, and Social Justice in the Development of Young Adults: Educational Implications for the Helping Professions

David Chenot and Hansung Kim

Traditionally, connections between spirituality, religion, and social justice have been evident in virtually every major religion in the world. Emphases on helping those without resources and the unjustly treated in society have led to overall concerns about social justice and related issues. This tradition appears to continue among young adults concerned with the spiritual dimensions of experience and/or religion. However, attitudes and behaviors about social justice may vary according to the level of spirituality or religion espoused by young adults. This is particularly important considering the influential roles those with university educations play in society. Using two-waves of longitudinal data, representing 14,527 students that attended 136 universities, the current study will examine the causal effects of spirituality and religiousness on students’ attitudes and behaviors towards several aspects of social justice: i.e., compassionate self-perceptions, an ethic of caring, and charitable involvement. The analytic method will include a cross-lagged panel modeling design and structural equation modeling techniques. Implications of the findings, potential curriculum development, especially for social work programs, and considerations for future research will be discussed.

Back to top


Identifying Mediators in the Relationship Between Spiritual Struggles and Substance Use in College Students

Carol Ann Faigin

Approximately half of college students experience spiritual struggles (Astin & Astin, 2004; Johnson, Sheets, & Kristeller, 2006), a normal yet potentially tumultuous component of spiritual development. College-aged youth also represent the highest rates of substance users across all age ranges (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007). Research has demonstrated that spiritual struggles are related to an increase in substance use in college students (Johnson, Sheets & Kristeller, 2006; Lindholm, 2006; Faigin & Pargament, 2008). However, there is a paucity of data investigating the nature of this relationship. The current study is one of the first of its kind to investigate mediators between spiritual struggles and substance use in a large, longitudinal, national sample. Findings from this study could inform the development of targeted interventions to help college students cope with, and possibly resolve, spiritual struggles in an adaptive and healthy way, potentially decreasing substance use and enhancing well-being.

Back to top


Student-Faculty Interaction and the Development of an “Ethic of Care”

James J. Fleming and Jennie Purnell & Yang Wang

A number of studies have demonstrated that faculty can have a transformative impact on college students, shaping not just their intellectual lives and academic programs, but also their vocational goals and their moral values and aspirations. In this study we seek to understand how faculty may have an impact on the moral and spiritual lives of their students through their mentoring relationships and their pedagogical choices.  Specifically, we look at the relationship between growth in a modified measure of an ethic of care between freshmen and senior years in a particular cohort of undergraduates, student reports of the frequency and substance of their conversations with faculty members, and student experience with student-centered pedagogies. We find that students who have had more mentoring interactions with faculty and more experiences with student-centered pedagogies are more likely to have developed a stronger ethic of care between their freshman and junior years than students who have not had these experiences and relationships.  The strongest relationship is between conversations involving moral and spiritual issues and an increase in the ethic of care.

Back to top


Exploring Race and Pro-Social Involvement as Dynamics of College Student Spirituality

Sean Gehrke

This study sought to examine the dynamics of spiritual change in college for students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.  Utilizing a sub-sample (n=3,698) of a national dataset of a study on the spiritual lives of college students, the study analyzed differences in spiritual levels and spiritual change in college students, revealing that spiritual experience in college differs for students from four different racial/ethnic groups: African American/Black; Asian American/Pacific Islander; Latino/Hispanic; and White/Caucasian.  The varied impact of pro-social involvement experiences on this spiritual change for students from different backgrounds paints a complex picture of their spiritual experiences in college.  The relative strengths of prediction of various pro-social involvement experiences on spirituality provide a better understanding of the spiritual experience in college for a racially and ethnically diverse student body.

Back to top


Catholicism on Campus: Stability and Change in Student Faith by College Type

Mark M. Gray and Melissa A. Cidade

In recent years there has been a lot of debate about the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges. Our research identifies the types of young adult Catholics who choose Catholic colleges and how these Catholic students are affected by their college experience--specifically their faith and worship.  We examine and make comparisons to the Catholic student who chooses to attend a college that is not affiliated with their faith. Recent research has shown that young adult Catholics already have low Mass attendance rates and that the late teens and early 20's are the ages at which a Catholic is most likely to leave their faith. Certainly all college students are affected by their college experience. Change should be expected. But what changes are occurring?  Is there something different occurring on Catholic campuses than on others? Our research provides a new portrait of understanding regarding the impact of Catholic higher education.

Back to top


Authoritarianism, Altruism & Spirituality among College Students

Debra Majeed, Greg Buchanan, & Bill Conover

Different motivations for being religious or nonreligious have different implications for human action. Authoritarian individuals are less inclined to be altruistic and may hold the view that one’s troubles are one’s own fault and that to show charity in such a situation would be a weakness. Further, authoritarian individuals are likely to endorse strong penalties for crimes, intolerance of social deviation, and pronounced in-group bias. On the other hand, altruism is a tenant of all of the world’s major religions. It thus makes sense to ask whether some religious people are less inclined to be altruistic because they hold authoritarian attitudes, or if religious teachings “protect” the individual from such selfishness. That is, which is more powerful in determining helpfulness—being authoritarian or being religious?

Back to top


Spirituality as Inclusive: A Multi-level Examination into the Role Colleges Play in Shaping the Development of Ecumenical Worldviews

Matthew J. Mayhew

This multi-level, longitudinal study investigated the ecumenical worldview development of 14,401 students enrolled in one of 126 institutions. Results indicated that the final hierarchical linear model, consisting of institution-and-student-level predictors as well as slopes explaining the relationships among some of these predictors, explained 69.45% of variance in Time 2 ecumenical worldview. Specifically, differences in ecumenical development trajectories for students with and without spiritual and religious interests could be explained by peer undergraduate socialization processes that served to challenge rather than reinforce religious and spiritual perspectives. Implications for college impact researchers and student development scholars are discussed. 

Back to top


Fostering Faith Commitments and Openness to Pluralism:
An Exploration of Fallibilist Student Spirituality and Its Predictors

P. Jesse Rine

Postmodern critiques of exclusivist truth claims have placed Evangelical colleges at a contemporary crossroads.  If they are to prepare students for a life of faith in a postmodern world, Evangelical colleges must foster two seemingly contradictory orientations in students—commitment to Christian faith and openness to pluralism.  This study will explore how fallibilism, an orientation emphasizing provisionality of belief, can empower Evangelical colleges to achieve this end.  A theoretical model for fallibilist student spirituality will be tested using structural equation modeling.  A number of curricular and peer factors will then be examined to determine the predictors of fallibilist student spirituality at Evangelical colleges.  In closing, suggestions will be made regarding best practices for institutions seeking to adopt a fallibilist orientation.

Back to top


Religious and Spiritual Change in College: Assessing the Effect of a Science Education

Christopher P. Scheitle

A long line of research has attempted to examine an assumed conflict between religious belief and scientific knowledge by assessing the religious beliefs of individuals with a high level of scientific training and education, such as faculty at universities. This research has established that there are differences in levels of religious belief across different disciplines, but because of data limitations it has not been able to adequately assess the causal nature of these differences. The research presented here overcomes these limitations using longitudinal data examining different dimensions of religious and spiritual belief among undergraduates. Using four latent variable concepts assessing both positive and negative dimensions of traditional and non-traditional forms of belief, the analysis shows no evidence that students in the natural sciences show a greater decrease in religious belief compared to students in other fields.

Back to top