The INSPIRES Index: Helping Campuses Welcome Students Of Diverse Religious, Secular, And Spiritual Identities

Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor of Higher Education at North Carolina State University, and Matthew J. Mayhew, William Ray, and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Higher Education at the Ohio State University, have partnered with IFYC to study interfaith engagement and campus climate for over a decade. 

For most students, the notion of going to college encompasses feelings of excitement associated with accomplishment, new beginnings, and personal investment, but also comes with trepidation about finding community and being successful. It’s a complicated transition, and most campuses do their best to project a sense of welcome -- through campus tours, admissions presentations, orientation, move-in day, welcome week, and first-year experiences -- to help students connect to the campus community. Doing so is an important first step toward helping students experience a sense of belonging. 

What might it mean for a campus to be welcoming for students holding diverse religious, secular, and spiritual identities (RSSIs)? The recent Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) assessed welcome in terms of how receptive students feel the campus is for people of different RSSIs. The study found that while there are many promising signs that students perceive support for their RSSIs on campus, there is also considerable room for improving welcome, particularly for students whose RSSIs are a minority. The study poignantly affirms the need for continued attention to the religious, spiritual, and secular dimension of campus climate: according to the 2020 IDEALS report

“Improving the campus climate for people of all faiths is essential for students to feel comfortable sharing their beliefs and navigating religious differences. These experiences will equip them to approach similarly challenging situations effectively when they move beyond college and into new civic and professional spheres—a skill-set that is sorely needed in today’s world.” 

The Interfaith, Spiritual, Religious, and Secular Campus Climate Index, or INSPIRES Index, is the product of a groundbreaking new project that extends our longstanding work with IDEALS by creating an institution-level survey grounded in IDEALS findings. INSPIRES is a national benchmarking tool designed to gauge how welcoming campuses are for students holding diverse RSSIs. Through IDEALS, we learned that the extent to which students infer welcome rests on several factors: 

  • Legacy of inclusion (e.g., whether the institution has historically excluded minoritized RSSI groups) 

  • Composition (e.g., whether the campus make-up is religiously diverse)

  • Organizational structures (e.g., whether the curriculum includes narratives of different religious traditions and whether institutional policies address RSSI diversity)

  • Psychological climate (e.g., whether the campus is experienced as supportive, coercive, or insensitive)

  • Behaviors (e.g., whether students engage religious diversity in productive ways in their courses, co-curricular activities, and social engagements). 

The INSPIRES Index integrates these findings into a data-driven institutional survey designed to help campuses improve their climate for RSSI diversity. In addition to inspiring institutional leaders to meaningfully improve their campus climate, data gathered through the INSPIRES Index will help prospective students and their families identify campuses that are welcoming to their particular RSSI needs. Institutions that participate will have the option to share how their campuses support students of diverse RSSIs via the INSPIRES Index website. 

For students embarking on the college decision-making process, knowing where their spiritual, religious, and secular identities will be supported is an important step toward ensuring they will succeed and thrive. Equipping them with this knowledge is part of the sacred process of building a community based on shared values and trust, and aligning the college’s vision of itself with the student’s vision of self is important for ensuring student success.



The INSPIRES Index is a free, low-time-commitment, high-benefit opportunity for institutions -- from large public universities to small religiously affiliated colleges -- seeking to make their campuses welcoming places for students of different RSSIs. More information about the project, as well as an online form for campus leaders interested in participating, is available on the INSPIRES website.

NOTE: This project is funded by The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, an organization with an interest in creating opportunities for courageous multi-faith conversations and collaborations.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.