The number of incoming students at four-year U.S. colleges and universities are less likely to view themselves as part of an organized religion or to be in a state of good emotional health, according to an annual study released today.
The findings are part of the 49th annual installment of the American Freshman, a survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program and administered by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute
The researchers, who interviewed approximately 153,000 full-time, first-year students at 227 four-year public and private institutions in 2014, found that only 50.7 percent of students said that in relation to their peers, their emotional health was "in the highest 10 percent" of people or "above average."
That represents a 2.3 percent decline from the freshman class of 2013 and the lowest level since the researchers began asking the question in 1985. In addition, the proportion of students who "frequently" felt depressed increased to 9.5 percent, 3.4 percentage points higher than in 2009.
"It may signal self-awareness. It may also signal increases in students becoming overwhelmed" during the period between high school graduation and their first year in college, Kevin Eagan, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, told The Wall Street Journal
"We certainly know that all these groups are at higher risk for emotional distress and for having troubles socially and physically. All of these things increase the challenge of functioning in high school and college settings," said Victor Schwartz, medical director at the nonprofit Jed Foundation, in an interview with InsideHigherEd
In 2014, the foundation joined forces with the Clinton Foundation to establish The Campus Program
to assess and enhance student mental health.
While more students may be more frequently reporting feeling depressed, they do not appear to be seeking relief by increasing their drinking or smoking.
In 2014, 61.4 percent said they spent less than an hour a week at parties, which is a significant increase over the 24.3 percent of students who said the same in 1987.
Additionally, the survey found the lowest self-reported rates of alcohol and cigarette use among incoming freshmen in approximately 30 years. In 2014, just 1.7 percent of students reported smoking cigarettes frequently, compared with the 9.2 percent who admitted to smoking cigarettes in 1981.
As the percentage of students saying they had periods of feeling depressed increased, the number of them who said they identified with a particular religion dropped.
In 1973, the first year researchers asked students about their mother's and father's religious preference, 6.4 percent of students selected "none" for paternal religious preference and 3.1 percent for maternal religious preference.
By 2014, that number had increased to 19 percent for father and 13.8 percent for mother, according to the survey.
The survey even reported that at Catholic colleges, the number of students saying they did not identify with any religion had increased from 10.6 percent in 2004 to 14.9 percent in 2014. Similarly, the proportion of students selecting "none" as their religious preference at other religious colleges nearly doubled, from 9.3 percent to 17.4 percent over the past decade.
"A large gap in self-rated spirituality also exists between students who identified with a religion and those who selected 'none.' More than 4 out of 10 (43.4 percent) students who identified with a religion rated their spirituality 'above average' or 'highest 10 percent' compared to only 16.4 percent of those who selected 'none.'
"However, this does suggest that some students clearly separate spirituality from a particular religion," the study said.
That trend is reflected in the larger population, as more Americans see religion's influence waning.
A September 2014 Pew Research survey
found that 72 percent believe religion is losing influence in American life, an increase of 5 percent over 2010 and the highest level in Pew Research polling in the last 10 years.
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