findings from a national study of interfaith engagement in college

what is IDEALS?

The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) is a groundbreaking national study examining college student perceptions of—and engagement with—religious diversity. Students in the study were enrolled at 122 diverse campuses from 2015-2019, including liberal arts colleges, religiously affiliated institutions, and a variety of public universities. At three points in their college careers, we asked students questions about their on-campus interfaith experiences, their knowledge and appreciation of different worldviews, and their commitment to bridging religious divides. IDEALS was led by Dr. Alyssa N. Rockenbach at North Carolina State University, Dr. Matthew J. Mayhew at The Ohio State University, and Interfaith Youth Core.

frequently asked questions

1. Why does religious diversity matter?

Growing polarization in the United States can be attributed in many ways to the nation’s rapidly diversifying religious landscape. To heal deep religious divides, Americans must possess the skills and knowledge to effectively engage with people whose beliefs differ from their own.

2. Why study college students?

College is a deeply formative time when many individuals first encounter people with different backgrounds and beliefs. It is also distinct in the way it brings diverse people together to live, work, and interact in a sustained way. Therefore, there is much to learn from studying how college students experience religious diversity and prepare for future roles in professional and civic spheres.

3. What are the most important things we learned?

IDEALS gathered a wealth of information about the interfaith experiences and attitudes of college students, but some of the most critical findings are:

• Students understand the importance of bridging religious divides, but few pursue opportunities to do so.

• Interfaith friendships flourish but may not prepare students to navigate deep differences.

• Students experience college differently depending on their religious identity—and in some cases feel unwelcome and unsupported.

• Most students are not gaining the necessary knowledge to navigate a religiously diverse country.

• Religiously diverse students report declining attitudes toward political conservatives.

4. Who should use IDEALS findings?

Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to prepare an entire generation of emerging adults—our future leaders—to embrace interfaith cooperation as a social norm.

Our findings have direct implications for stakeholders at all levels of higher education: presidents and VPs, faculty, and student affairs practitioners. Leaders in a variety of civic arenas may also find them valuable, particularly those working in other educational contexts.

5. How can I learn more about the research?

IDEALS builds on a growing body of research at the intersection of religious diversity, campus climate, and college impact. The principal investigators of this study are Dr. Alyssa N. Rockenbach at North Carolina State University, an expert in religious and worldview diversity issues in higher education, and Dr. Matthew J. Mayhew at The Ohio State University, an expert on college and its influence on student learning and democratic outcomes.

More information about the research team is available on the IDEALS website, along with a comprehensive list of IDEALS-related reports and publications.

IDEALS in action

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
article - Nov. 27, 2020
Universities, one of the first places students encounter peers from other faiths, have a unique opportunity to teach students how to navigate disagreements that may arise.
AP News
article - Aug. 24, 2020
College students spend significantly less time learning about people of different religious and worldview groups than different races, political affiliations, and sexual orientations.
Inside Higher Ed
article - Aug. 24, 2020
Many college students are not gaining the skill sets and knowledge they need to navigate a religiously diverse country, according to a new longitudinal study based on surveys of students across 122 campuses.
article - September 1, 2020
Roughly 80% of Jewish college students said they felt they had a safe space to be Jewish on campus, citing Hillel and Chabad in a recent study.
University Business
article - August 27, 2020
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.
Huffington Post
article - September 10, 2020
Students’ personal political identities didn’t seem to shift significantly during their four years at college, according to data collected. What did change, however, is how students felt about political liberals.

campus spotlight

Loras College participated in IDEALS and is using their data to inform a new interfaith strategic plan for their campus. The plan builds on Loras’s strong curricular impact findings and focuses on enhancing ways that students from all worldviews feel welcome on campus. Preparations are underway to incorporate the interfaith plan into the college’s overarching strategic plan, thereby situating interfaith engagement as an institution-wide priority. Findings from IDEALS were instrumental in drawing together key stakeholders from across campus—faculty, staff, and administrators—who are positioned to broaden the scope and impact of interfaith work at Loras.  

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IDEALS reports

Emerging Interfaith Trends
Navigating Pluralism: How Students Approach Religious Difference and Interfaith Engagement in Their First Year of College
Best Practices for Interfaith Learning
Friendships Matter