Christian College Seniors Report Lower Spiritual Vitality than Freshman, by Todd W. Hall, PhD

The third of five reflections on The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students based upon Todd’s national research project, including Spiritual Transformation Inventory data from over 5,000 students attending CCCU and ABHE colleges and universities.

by Todd W. Hall, PhD

On national data collected at one point in time, we found that seniors scored lower than freshmen on 19 of the 22 measures.

When we look at how students’ spirituality changes over time, many of the indicators of spiritual development went down over time, but some went up. For example, scores trended worse on the frequency of spiritual disciplines, the centrality of faith and an anxious connection to God, but better on an overall sense of spiritual well-being. On national data collected at one point in time, we found that seniors scored lower than freshmen on 19 of the 22 measures.

How do we make sense of this? When we look at this in the context of brain development and “emerging adulthood,” I think this is probably a normal developmental trajectory. The brain goes through a massive reorganization between the ages of 12 and 18, and this continues into the early 20s. Parallel to these brain changes, students’ identity, sense of self, and worldview all go through an extensive reorganization during this period as well. With all this brain and identity reorganization, it makes sense that this is a time of spiritual instability.

Jeffrey Arnett captured a developmental phenomenon that has been growing for the past 50 years with the concept of “emerging adulthood,” roughly the age span of 18 to 29. Emerging adults tend to feel somewhat like a kid, and somewhat like an adult, but not fully like either one.
In this stage, students are at a spiritual crossroads: They are figuring out what kind of person they want to be, what kind of people they want to travel life with and what kind of work they want to do. They are also figuring out what role they want God to play in their lives. This leads them to travel many pathways in a short period of time. This means that manifestations of their spirituality will often go down.

Decreases on some indicators of spiritual development during the college years actually reflect a deepening of one’s faith.

It may be, however, that decreases on some indicators of spiritual development during the college years actually reflect a deepening of one’s faith. This is a period that often requires a certain deconstruction of one’s identity, sense of self, and worldview in order to build the foundation for an adult identity and a more mature spirituality.

In light of this, I suspect that as we interview seniors in the current study we are conducting, we will find evidence that their spirituality is deeper than that of freshmen, even though they report lower scores than freshmen on self-report measures. This will help us better understand spiritual development during emerging adulthood.

Next: College Students tend to fit one of Five Spirituality “Types”

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