Study Reveals Disconnect Between Students’ Expectations, Attitudes on Religious Diversity

The majority of college freshmen believe their colleges should be welcoming of individuals from diverse religious backgrounds, a new survey reveals; however, those same students indicated less welcoming personal attitudes toward such groups.

Conducted by researchers at New York University and North Carolina State University in partnership with Interfaith Youth Core last year, this national study surveyed freshman students at 122 institutions. Colleges included a mix of both public and private, religious and nonreligious — including Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical schools.

Of the more than 20,000 students who responded to the survey, 85 percent said it’s “important for their colleges to provide a welcoming environment for individuals of diverse religious backgrounds and nonreligious perspectives.” They also said that religious diversity is as important as other forms of diversity such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.

However, when it came to questions about their own attitudes toward specific religious groups, students’ responses were less positive. Just over half of respondents said they had “highly appreciative attitudes” toward Buddhists, Jews, and evangelical Christians, while less than half reported the same attitude toward atheists and Hindus.

In addition, 43 percent and 39 percent of students indicated highly appreciative attitudes toward Muslims and Mormons, respectively.

Students’ attitudes were gauged by their responses to four statements: “people in this group make positive contributions to society,” “individuals in this group are ethical people,” “I have things in common with people in this group,” and “in general, I have a positive attitude toward people in this group.”

One of the principal investigators on the study Matthew Mayhew, an associate professor of higher education at New York University, said the findings are “troubling,” especially given that young people are interacting at increased rates with people of diverse faiths even before entering college.

“Even though students are saying they expect real diversity and want a welcoming environment for everyone, the numbers don’t line up when you start drilling down into attitudes about specific groups,” he said in a statement. “The numbers are staggering.”

However, he cites the way in which the study was written as a potential reason for the disconnect between students’ expectations and their own attitudes. Questions regarding institutional expectations were vague, not referring to any specific religious groups, while questions about personal attitudes were narrower.

When students were asked generally if they respect people of other perspectives, 91 percent said they did, and 85 percent said they admire people of other faiths.

The survey also revealed a disconnect between students’ expectations and actions. More than 70 percent of respondents said it’s important for colleges to provide opportunities to get to know people from diverse religious backgrounds, and 68 percent said it’s important for colleges to provide opportunities for students to participate in community service with people of different faiths.

However, only half of students said they have actually worked on service projects with individuals of different faiths in the last 12 months, only 33 percent said they had attended a religious service other than their own, and just 20 percent said they had participated in an interfaith dialogue.