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Learning About Other Faiths Doesn’t Lead Evangelical Students to Lose Theirs

Compared to other colleges, students at evangelical institutions end up gaining the most knowledge of world religions.
Learning About Other Faiths Doesn’t Lead Evangelical Students to Lose Theirs
Image: Kentaroo Tryman / Getty Images

One of the negative stereotypes of evangelical colleges is that they keep students in a religious “bubble.” But new survey data shows that these schools are particularly effective at teaching students about other faiths, and that this exposure to outside traditions is actually correlated with a deeper commitment to their own beliefs.

The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS)—a panel study that surveys the same students before, during, and at the end of their college career—measures basic knowledge about world religions.

The sample included over 1,300 students from 15 evangelical universities, the majority of which were members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Compared to students who planned to attend Catholic or private secular universities, evangelical students had a lower baseline level of knowledge. The average student attending an evangelical university could answer just 4.9 questions correctly. However, this score was higher than those attending public universities (4.8) and those who attended Protestant schools not classified as evangelical (4.6 questions correct).

All institutions of higher education impart some knowledge of world religions, but there are clear differences between the types of schools. For instance, the average student attending a Catholic college answered 0.64 more questions correctly after four years at college, which is close to the average for the entire sample (0.67).

Those attending evangelical schools—many of which require some sort of religious formation classes in their curricula—saw a larger improvement, answering 0.83 more questions correctly on average by the end of their college career. That gain in religious knowledge is tied for the largest increase among any type of college or university and resulted in the highest average score at the end of the survey period.

Evangelical schools are emphasizing world religions, and students are seeing measurable gains in knowledge.

Students at evangelical schools are not just learning Protestant church history and theology. They showed the greatest gains in knowledge of faiths outside of their own.

While 57.3 percent of respondents from evangelical schools knew that Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church when they began college, that jumped to 73.4 percent four years later. The share of evangelical students who understood the concept of nirvana increased 14.1 percentage points; the number who knew about the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day increased more than 12 points, as did their knowledge of Muslims fasting during Ramadan. (Students at Catholic schools are still more than twice as likely to know Day than those at other colleges—one of the biggest gaps in the survey.) Questions surrounding Judaism and Christianity saw increases as well, but they were much more modest, often in the single digits.

Some administrators and parents of evangelical college students may be concerned that teaching so much about religions outside the evangelical faith tradition may lead some of their students to drift away. This data should allay those fears. When the sample was divided up to compare those with high religious knowledge (answering at least seven of the eight questions correctly) to those with low religious knowledge, it was the former group that remained more devout.

Among those attending evangelical colleges who had a high level of religious knowledge, 82.1 percent still identified as evangelicals as seniors. Among students at evangelical schools who answered six or fewer questions correctly, just 60.5 percent said that they were evangelical.

Just a few weeks ago, a research study from Cardus, a Christian think tank, found that Christian college students were more likely to care about helping other people than about making money than those who attended public universities. The indication is that Christian schools should focus on what makes them distinct: their mission and purpose.

The data from IDEALS seems to provide even more support for the argument that Christian colleges should emphasize what they do best: providing broad knowledge to their students about the world that exists outside the campus community. They are able to expand the religious worldviews of their students while also grounding them in the evangelical faith tradition. As the world becomes increasingly diverse and interconnected, this could be a major selling feature of evangelical higher education.

Ryan P. Burge is an instructor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. His research appears on the site Religion in Public, and he tweets at @ryanburge.

The Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) is a national study that is led by Alyssa Rockenbach (North Carolina State University) and Matthew Mayhew (The Ohio State University) in partnership with Interfaith Youth Core, with funding by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Fetzer Institute, and the Julian Grace Foundation. Burge partnered with IDEALS to share his independent analysis of the data its researchers provided.

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