Research in Higher Education

, Volume 51, Issue 7, pp 595–614 | Cite as

Do College Students Who Identify with a Privileged Religion Experience Greater Spiritual Development? Exploring Individual and Institutional Dynamics



College student spiritual development constitutes an important, yet understudied topic in higher education research. In particular, very little is known about whether and how this development varies among students from diverse religious backgrounds. Using a longitudinal sample of 14,527 students from 136 institutions, the current study explored the degree to which spiritual development is related to the religious affiliations of students and the type of colleges and universities they attend. Hierarchical linear modeling analyses demonstrate numerous differences between students who identify with religious majority groups (e.g., Lutherans, Methodists), religious minority groups (e.g., Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists), and no religion at all. In most instances, the presence of individual differences in spiritual development depends upon the religious affiliation of the institution. Moreover, several college experiences are positively associated with spiritual development. Implications for higher education practitioners and administrators are discussed.


Spirituality Religion Religious affiliation Institutional type Diversity College students Student development Faith Privilege Marginalization 



The authors thank UCLA’s Spirituality in Higher Education Project and its directors, Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer A. Lindholm, for providing the data for this study. The UCLA project, which is housed at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.


  1. Allison, P. D. (2002). Missing data. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  2. Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25, 297–308.Google Scholar
  3. Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  4. Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. (in press). Assessing students’ spiritual and religious qualities. Journal of College Student Development.Google Scholar
  5. Beaman, L. G. (2003). The myth of pluralism, diversity, and vigor: The constitutional privilege of Protestantism in the United States and Canada. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43, 311–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bonderud, K., & Fleischer, M. (2005). College students report high levels of spirituality and religiousness: Major study has implications for colleges, health, and politics. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Higher Education Research Institute.Google Scholar
  7. Boorstein, M. (2009, March 9). 15 percent of Americans have no religion. The Washington Post, p. A04.Google Scholar
  8. Braskamp, L., Trautvetter, L. C., & Ward, K. (2005). How college fosters faith development in students [Electronic Version]. Spirituality in Higher Education Newsletter, 2(3), 1–6.Google Scholar
  9. Bryant, A. N. (2006). Exploring religious pluralism in higher education: Non-majority religious perspectives among entering first-year college students. Religion & Education, 33(1), 1–25.Google Scholar
  10. Bryant, A. N., & Astin, H. S. (2008). The correlates of spiritual struggle during the college years. Journal of Higher Education, 79(1), 1–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bryant, A. N., Choi, J. Y., & Yasuno, M. (2003). Understanding the religious and spiritual dimensions of students’ lives in the first year of college. Journal of College Student Development, 44, 723–746.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Chen, P. D., Dalton, J. C., & Crosby, P. C. (2006). How colleges differ in their efforts to promote moral and ethical development in college. Religion & Education, 33(2), 47–63.Google Scholar
  13. Cherry, C., DeBerg, B. A., & Porterfield, A. (2001). Religion on campus. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  14. Clydesdale, T. (2007). Abandoned, pursued, or safely stowed? [Electronic Version]. Essay Forum on the religious engagements of American undergraduates, 1–8. Retrieved July 18, 2007 from
  15. Cohen, J., Cohen, P., West, S. G., & Aiken, L. S. (2003). Applied multiple regression correlation analysis for the behavioral sciences (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  16. Dalton, J. C., Eberhardt, D., Bracken, J., & Echols, K. (2006). Inward journeys: Forms and patterns of college student spirituality. Journal of College and Character, 7(8), 1–21.Google Scholar
  17. Flanagan, K. (1998). Eastern orthodoxy [Electronic Version]. Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Retrieved May 15, 2009 from
  18. Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco: Harper Collins.Google Scholar
  19. Fried, J. (2007). Thinking skillfully and respecting difference: Understanding religious privilege on campus. Journal of College and Character, 9(1), 1–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hartley, H. V. (2004, February). The religious engagement of first-year students at Protestant colleges. Paper presented at the Institute on College Student Values, Tallahassee, FL.Google Scholar
  21. Heck, R. H., & Thomas, S. L. (2009). An introduction to multilevel modeling techniques (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Higher Education Research Institute. (2005). The spiritual life of college students: A national study of college students’ search for meaning and purpose. Los Angeles: University of California, Higher Education Research Institution.Google Scholar
  23. Hill, P. C., & Pargament, K. I. (2003). Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of religion and spirituality: Implications for physical and mental health research. American Psychologist, 58, 64–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Johnson, T. J., Kristeller, J., & Sheets, V. L. (2004). Religiousness and spirituality in college students: Separate dimensions with unique and common correlates. Journal of College and Character, 2, 1–36.Google Scholar
  25. Kuh, G. D., & Gonyea, R. M. (2005). Exploring the relationships between spirituality, liberal learning, and college student engagement. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University. Retrieved September 11, 2006 from
  26. Kurien, P. A. (2005). Being young, brown, and Hindu: The identity struggles of second-generation Indian Americans. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 34, 434–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lee, J. J. (2002). Religion and college attendance: Change among students. The Review of Higher Education, 25, 369–384.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lowery, J. W. (2004). Understanding the legal protections and limitations upon religion and spiritual expression on campus. College Student Affairs Journal, 23, 146–157.Google Scholar
  29. Luke, D. A. (2004). Multilevel modeling. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  30. Ma, S. Y. (2003). The Christian college experience and the development of spirituality among students. Christian Higher Education, 2, 321–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Magolda, P., & Gross, K. E. (2009). It’s all about Jesus! Faith as an oppositional subculture. Sterling, VA: Stylus.Google Scholar
  32. Mayhew, M. J. (2004). Exploring the essence of spirituality: A phenomenological study of eight students with eight different worldviews. NASPA Journal, 41, 647–674.Google Scholar
  33. Nash, R. J. (2003). Inviting atheists to the table: A modest proposal for higher education. Religion and Education, 30(1), 1–23.Google Scholar
  34. Nash, R. J. (2007). Understanding and promoting religious pluralism on college campuses [Electronic Version]. Spirituality and Higher Education Newsletter, 3(4), 1–9.Google Scholar
  35. Parks, S. D. (2000). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose and faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  36. Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (Eds.). (2005). How college affects students, volume 2: A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  37. Patel, E. (2007). Religious diversity and cooperation on campus. Journal of College and Character, 9(2), 1–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Peek, L. (2005). Becoming Muslim: The development of a religious identity. Sociology of Religion, 66, 215–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Posner, B., Slater, C., & Boone, M. (2006). Spirituality and leadership among college freshmen. The International Journal of Servant-Leadership, 2(1), 165–180.Google Scholar
  40. Railsback, G. L. (1994). An exploratory study of the religiosity and related outcomes among college students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.Google Scholar
  41. Railsback, G. (2006). Faith commitment of born-again students at secular and Evangelical colleges. Journal of Research on Christian Education, 15(1), 39–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Raudenbush, S. W., & Bryk, A. S. (2002). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  43. Roof, W. C., & McKinney, W. (1987). American mainline religion: Its changing shape and future. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Sax, L. (2002). America’s Jewish freshmen: Current characteristics and recent trends among students entering college. Los Angeles: University of California, Higher Education Research Institution.Google Scholar
  45. Sax, L. J., Astin, A. W., Korn, W. S., & Mahoney, K. M. (2003). The American freshman: National norms for fall 2002. Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, Higher Education Research Institute.Google Scholar
  46. Schlosser, L. Z. (2003). Christian privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31(Jan.), 44–51.Google Scholar
  47. Seifert, T. (2007). Understanding Christian privilege: Managing the tensions of spiritual plurality. About Campus, 12(2), 10–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Small, J. L. (2007). “Do you buy into the whole idea of ‘God the Father’?” How college students talk about spiritual transformation. Religion & Education, 34(1), 1–27.Google Scholar
  49. Small, J. L. (2008). College student religious affiliation and spiritual identity: A qualitative study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.Google Scholar
  50. Speck, B. W. (1997). Respect for religious differences: The case of Muslim students. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 70, 39–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Swatos, W. H. (1998). Unitarianism [Electronic Version]. Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Retrieved May 15, 2009 from
  52. Watt, S. K., Fairchild, E. E., & Goodman, K. M. (Eds.). (2009). Intersections of religious privilege: Difficult dialogues and student affairs practice. San Francisco: Wiley.Google Scholar
  53. Zabriskie, M. (2005). College student definitions of religiosity and spirituality. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.Google Scholar
  54. Zinnbauer, B. J., Pargament, K. I., & Scott, A. B. (1999). The emerging meanings of religiousness and spirituality: Problems and prospects. Journal of Personality, 67, 889–919.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Social ConcernsUniversity of Notre DameNotre DameUSA
  2. 2.Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary EducationUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

Personalised recommendations