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.
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 that were 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 or classees 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.