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US freshmen reveal their spiritual side

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College life requires just the right balance between study, work, and play. And for many, there's a fourth essential: prayer.

Nearly two-thirds of American college freshmen pray at least weekly, according to the first comprehensive nationwide survey about their spiritual and religious views.

On public and private campuses alike, spirituality has moved beyond the chapel. Whether students prefer meditation, sacred music, or grappling with meaning-of-life questions around the dinner table, many schools are responding by making more space for spiritual exploration.

"We've been inclined to say, 'Well, these issues are very personal, they don't fit into the sort of scientific objectivist framework of higher education,' ... [but] there's a lot we can do to address students' spiritual concerns without ... promoting any particular sectarian religious point of view," says Jon Dalton, director of the Hardee Center for Leadership and Ethics in Higher Education at Florida State University.

Forty-eight percent of freshmen say it's "very important" or "essential" for their college to encourage their personal expression of spirituality, reports the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles. Yesterday it released "The Spiritual Life of College Students," a study of more than 100,000 American students, weighted to represent all first-time, full-time freshmen at four-year schools.

It reveals many facets of students' inner lives, including:

• Why they pray. Frequently it's for help solving problems, for forgiveness, and to express gratitude.

• Their level of confidence in their views about religious or spiritual matters. Forty-two percent identify themselves as "secure"; 23 percent "seeking"; 15 percent "conflicted"; 10 percent "doubting"; and 15 percent "not interested" (respondents could check off more than one).

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