Study: Colleges must help students close religious divides

Campus leaders should be 'more proactive' in helping bridge gaps that exist, authors of interfaith diversity report say
By: | August 27, 2020
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When freshmen take their first steps on college campuses, new experiences abound, including meeting people who come from different backgrounds and those who hold their own religious beliefs.

Studies have shown that students who are more receptive to a variety of cultures and faiths – and can bridge gaps that may exist – will enjoy more positive experiences later in life and especially in the workplace.

Higher education institutions can play a part in affecting those outcomes. With large, diverse pools of students and faculty, they can provide pathways for students to learn about various religious groups and cultures and to help them understand wide-ranging viewpoints on faith.

So how are they doing?

The nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core, along with professors Alyssa Rockenbach of North Carolina State University and Matthew Mayhew of The Ohio State University, recently posted findings from a four-year study, Bridging Religious Divides Through Higher Education, of nearly 4,000 students across more than 100 colleges and universities on interfaith diversity. They say institutions can be better stewards of helping prepare students to be leaders after college.

“It appears that some students are being set up for success better than others when it comes to building skills for interfaith cooperation,” the study’s authors noted. “Improving the campus climate for people of all faiths is essential for students to feel comfortable sharing their beliefs and navigating religious differences.”

The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) was done from 2015-2019 and polled students upon arrival to college, after their first year, and just before the end of their fourth year. The findings showed several areas of concern:

  • Most students say they do not look to bridge religious divides even though they know it is important.
  • Students welcome interfaith friendships but struggle to discuss deep differences.
  • Depending on religious beliefs, some students feel “unwelcome and unsupported”

Of the students polled, only 32% said they acquired the needed skills to interact with people of diverse beliefs during college. Given current divides that exist throughout the world, authors say it is incumbent upon institutions to inspire change.

“College campuses serve as an ideal context for students to wrestle with deep differences — with the support of campus leaders who can guide their efforts. However, higher education leaders must be more proactive in creating these opportunities,” the authors said.

What the numbers show

More than 96% of students surveyed say they “respect people who have religious or nonreligious perspectives that differ from their own” and  93% “admire people of other faiths or beliefs”. Additionally, 93% of students said they forged one interfaith friendship by their fourth year of college, and 49% had five or more friends with other worldviews.

Though 70% of students said they were committed to bridging religious divides, a number of groups (categorized by their religious preference), fell below that number. And although cohorts of students collectively made strides toward closing gaps over the four-year period, others declined.

Where are some of the largest gaps occurring? Only 11% say they took part in a critical interfaith issue and only 14% even had an interfaith dialogue. For campus leaders looking at instilling a positive change immediately, many can offer or help promote interfaith or religious diversity training. Only 9% of those surveyed said they participated in that type of offering.

“While some of these groups made gains in their commitment to bridging religious divides during college, their underwhelming growth compared to peers deserves special attention,” the survey noted. “We must ask, how can campus leaders encourage interfaith engagement among students who may not find it as valuable?”

Strategies for colleges

Many students say their colleges and universities support their religious beliefs, and the authors of the study say that’s a good thing.

“When students believe places exist on campus where they can express their beliefs, and when they feel safe doing so, it suggests their religious identity is recognized and valued,” they said. “Relatedly, when faculty and staff make accommodations for students to celebrate religious holidays or other important observances, students perceive support for their personal worldview.”

Shauna Morin, a research fellow at Interfaith Your Core and one of the authors in the study, published an article offering recommendations for both institutions and their educators to help facilitate bridging those gaps.

For institutions, she highlighted a number of ideals:

  • Value religious diversity and don’t be afraid to promote or endorse that in messaging or by providing space on campus for religious groups.
  • Accentuate positivity and inclusion for all groups.
  • Bolster diversity policies by giving religion prominence on campus
  • Require students to participate in interfaith activities, either as part of curriculum or extracurricular events
  • Invest more in interfaith programs

For educators, she says:

  • Don’t let students assume. Challenge them to learn about different faith and groups.
  • Create plans or projects and establish groups that allow for students to collaborate and learn about each other.
  • Let students be students. Give them the opportunity to interact outside of class by encouraging study groups and hosting events.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business