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A new project scores colleges on how much they welcome religious diversity

A new tool gauges how welcoming campuses are for students with diverse worldviews.

Photo by Nico Smit/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — College students today, part of the most diverse generation in America’s history, also care deeply about diversity. Before they choose their schools, students and their families want to know how welcoming colleges are, and universities themselves track their racial and sexual diversity.

Little work has been done on how colleges welcome religious diversity, despite the fact that religion is as important to today’s college students as any other measure of diversity. A national study conducted over four years at more than 120 campuses, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey revealed that 70% of college seniors were highly committed to bridging religious divides by the time they graduated college.

That same study found that only 27% percent of Jewish students agreed their campus was receptive to religious diversity, a sentiment shared by 37% of Buddhists and 38% of Hindus.

So despite high student support for bridging religious differences, it’s clear that campus climates have some catching up to do.

A new benchmarking tool, the INSPIRES index, is designed to make things easier for families and schools. By gauging how welcoming campuses are for students with diverse worldviews, the creators of the index hope to inspire institutions to move toward thinking about religious diversity the same way they do other forms of diversity.

“Our hope is to get information about welcoming campus environments directly into the hands of students and their families as they embark on the college choice process,” said Alyssa Rockenbach of North Carolina State University, who is co-leading the effort with Matthew Mayhew of The Ohio State University. “Knowing where their spiritual, religious and secular identities will be supported is an important step toward ensuring students succeed and thrive.”

Here’s how it works. After a campus representative completes a survey on the institution’s behalf, colleges receive a star rating reflecting how welcoming their campus climate is for religious, spiritual and secular identities, with subscores relating to particular groups: Jewish students, Muslim students, evangelical students, etc., as well as recommendations for how to improve their score.

Parents and students will be directed to a landing page with a star rating indicating the campus’s overall score. On that landing page, parents and students will be able to also select subscore ratings from a list of options.

Institutions were recruited to participate in the project during summer and fall of 2021 and will be given the opportunity to preview their results in spring 2022. Colleges and universities that elect to make their scores public will see their first scores released this summer. 

“As someone who identifies as Muslim,” said Musbah Shaheen, a graduate student at The Ohio State University who is assisting on the project, “I feel personally seen when religious diversity is named and celebrated, whereas if it’s ignored or undervalued, I feel ignored and undervalued as well.” 

Along with boosting the place of religion in schools’ conversations about diversity, the study hopes to guide students and their families during the college choice process, helping them choose a campus that meets their religious, spiritual and secular needs.

INSPIRES builds on previous studies conducted by Rockenbach and Mayhew over the last 10 years, including the 2011–2015 Campus Religious and Spiritual Climate Survey and the 2015–2019 Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey.

Both were inspired by Alexander and Helen Astin’s groundbreaking study, Spirituality in Higher Education: Students’ Search for Meaning and Purpose, and draw input from educators and students to uncover the practices most important for students to feel welcomed on campus.

“This index means that decisionmakers on campus don’t have to read pages and pages of reports to identify how their campus and other campuses are doing in this area,” said Mayhew.

The index will be a living database, updated as institutions make improvements to campus climates and as more campuses join the effort. The researchers hope that the index guides future research endeavors that will further interfaith understanding and cooperation across U.S. society.

“Higher education often mirrors what we’re seeing in society broadly. So long as we’re not invested in improving policies on campus to be equitable and accessible toward all religious and non-religious groups, I believe we’ll struggle to move the needle in society at large,” explained Gordon Maples, a graduate student on the project who identifies as an atheist and secular humanist.

Maples added, “INSPIRES is designed to help colleges do just that. As they work to ensure that students of a range of worldviews feel at home on campus, students will leave college with a considerable level of expectation that their communities and workplaces provide a similarly welcoming environment. I’m excited for the kind of societal impact this tool could have.”

Institutions were recruited to participate in the project during summer and fall of 2021 and will be given the opportunity to preview their results in spring 2022. For those colleges and universities that elect to make their scores public, these will be released in summer 2022.

(Kevin Singer writes on religion and spirituality in America. He can be contacted on Twitter  @kevinsinger0. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)