Press Release

Navigating Pluralism in Higher Education Study Released
Survey of College Freshmen Paints Promising Picture of Commitment to Religious Pluralism, Finds Missed Opportunities for Positive Interfaith Engagement in the First Year

Despite an increasingly polarized national climate, first-year students enter college placing a high premium on engagement with peers of different religious and worldview backgrounds. However, despite espousing these values, most students report an overall decline in their interactions with those of different faiths and worldviews by the end of freshman year. 

According to the latest findings of The Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS), which examines the ways in which American undergraduates engage with religious and worldview diversity through college, incoming 2015-16 first-year students came to campus expecting a welcoming environment, with a full 85% finding it “important” or “very important” that their institution prioritize welcoming people of diverse religious and non-religious perspectives. By the end of their first year, these same students reported perceiving their campus to be less welcoming than initially expected, particularly for worldview minority peers.

Overall, few students perceived overt religious prejudice on campus, and less than one-fifth agreed that religious or worldview differences were creating division or conflict at their institutions. However, a slight majority of students reported that their peers tended to self-segregate along lines of shared worldview identity and survey data suggest a relationship between this self-segregation and instances of pressure, coercion, and insensitivity on campus.

Particularly remarkable is the divide between students’ attitudes and actions. Despite their expressed commitment to pluralism, religious diversity engagement rates actually dropped among students—sometimes markedly—from the 12 months prior to attending their institution to the end of their first year on campus. In 2015-2016, the number of students participating in formal or classroom-based interfaith activities dropped by 18 percentage points. The sharpest decline was in students’ discussions of religious or spiritual topics with teachers. Nearly half of students (43%) had such discussions prior to coming to campus; just one-quarter (25%) did so after their first year in college.

Dr. Matt Mayhew, IDEALS Co-Principal Investigator reflected on possible reasons for this first-year decline in interfaith activities, saying, “educators seem afraid to discuss issues of religion and spirituality in and out of class. Perhaps critical dialogue is being compromised for compromise? More likely, educators are not equipped with the pedagogical strategies needed to support students as they address and sometimes struggle with interfaith ideas. As the primary stewards of institutional messaging, faculty and educators in college need to refine their skills as teachers first – understanding how to help students productively exchange across religious and worldview differences.”

Eboo Patel, IFYC Founder & President, also pointed to educators’ and institutions’ vital role in addressing these issues. “We know that students enter college with a commitment to religious pluralism – the IDEALS survey shows that the vast majority report respect for people of other religious or nonreligious perspectives. However, it is important that colleges and universities continue to provide opportunities for these ideas to expand and grow. Otherwise, the survey indicates there is a danger of students retreating into their own groups, which is particularly troubling at a moment of heightened division in our country,” said Patel. “The good news is that the survey also identifies a clear set of actions colleges and universities can take that predict positive engagement.”

The 2015-16 report is based on responses from 7,194 college students attending 122 U.S. colleges and universities. Further data can be found in Navigating Pluralism: How Students Approach Religious Difference and Interfaith Engagement in their First Year of College IDEALS is a partnership of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and higher education researchers Dr. Matthew Mayhew, Professor of Educational Administration with a focus on Higher Education and Student Affairs at The Ohio State University, and Dr. Alyssa Rockenbach, Professor of Higher Education at North Carolina State University.

Primary Media Contact: Nasser Asif // 312-573-8918

Secondary Media Contact: Ben Correia-Harker // 312-573-8909

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