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2/3 US colleges and universities lack student groups for Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists

Research Briefs are brief information about interesting academic work.

big idea

Most American colleges and universities lack minority religious student groups for Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim students. That’s according to our new peer-reviewed study of officially recognized minority religious student groups at 1,953 four-year nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States.

Colleges and universities across the US typically maintain databases of all student organizations on their campuses. By analyzing those databases, we found that Muslim student groups are located in only 28% of US colleges and universities, while Jewish student groups are located in only 25% of US colleges and universities.

Additionally, 5% each of Buddhist and Hindu student groups are represented in colleges and universities. And 66% of American colleges and universities lack any kind of minority religious student group.

Using US Department of Education data, we also identified characteristics of schools that are home to one or more minority religious student groups. We found that the presence of minority religious student groups is partly due to institutional resources. For example, schools with large donations tend to have more minority religious student groups than schools with smaller endowments, partly because wealthy schools employ more student affairs professionals. The job of those professionals is to support student organizations on campus. In addition, wealthy schools often provide funding to student organizations.

In addition to providing staff and money, schools with large numbers of students have more minority religious student groups. This is possible because schools with larger student bodies have more students interested in forming Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim student groups.

Finally, certain types of institutions are more likely to contain minority religious student groups. We found that approximately 40% of public colleges and universities have minority religious student groups, while only 27% of private Christian colleges and universities have minority religious student groups. This is partly because private Christian colleges or universities are legally permitted to discriminate against non-Christian students, including by refusing to recognize non-Christian student groups. Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim students may also avoid attending Christian colleges and universities at first.

why it matters

Research suggests that minority religious student groups can provide “safe places” to Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim student groups, even in places where they are not welcome. For example, after 9/11, Muslim students faced abuse and harassment on some college and university campuses. Muslim student groups supported these students by providing them with advice on how to navigate the unwanted campus environment.

Minority religious student organizations are also instrumental in changing the policies of their campuses in ways that make those campuses friendlier to students of minority faiths. For example, national-level organizations such as the Muslim Students Union and Hillel International instruct the leaders of local college chapters on how to set up prayer rooms on their campuses. They also provide guidance on how to persuade schools to serve halal or kosher food, foods that conform to Muslim or Jewish dietary rules, respectively.

The fact that most colleges and universities lack minority religious student groups means that many students lack the resources that can make them feel more welcome on their campuses.

what is not yet known

When researchers interview leaders or members of student groups, they often identify practical strategies and tactics that students use to build and grow organizations on campus. However, because of our reliance on quantitative data, we do not know how the strategic thinking and leadership abilities of Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim students may have contributed to the establishment of groups on their campuses.

what will happen next

Future research may take a look at the characteristics of schools that have the largest or most active minority religious student organizations. Subsequent research may also identify characteristics of the most dominant minority religious student groups.

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