Do religious students get better grades?
In America, the demographic circumstances of a child’s birth significantly shape educational achievement. Sociologists have spent decades studying how factors beyond students’ control — including their parents’ race, wealth, and zip code — affect their educational opportunities and outcomes.
But an often overlooked demographic factor is religion. The United States is the richest and most devout western democracy. Does a religious education influence the academic results of adolescents?
Over the past 30 years, sociologists and economists have conducted several studies that consistently show a positive relationship between religiosity and academic achievement. These studies show that more religious students get better grades and complete more schooling than their less religious peers. But researchers debate what these findings really mean, and whether the apparent effect of religiosity on student performance is really about religion or the result of other underlying factors.
My latest research highlights that religion has a powerful but mixed impact. Intensely religious teens — who some researchers call “faithful” — are more likely than average to earn higher GPAs and complete more college. By religious intensity, I mean if people consider religion very important, attend religious services at least once a week, pray at least once a day, and believe in God with absolute certainty. Theological belief alone is not enough to influence children’s behavior – they must also be part of a religious community. Teens who see an academic advantage both believe and belong.
On average, however, residents with excellent grades tend to attend less selective colleges than their less religious peers with similar GPAs and from comparable socioeconomic backgrounds.
The conclusions of these conclusions are not intended to encourage people to become more religious or to promote religion in schools. Rather, they point to a particular set of mindsets and habits that help observers succeed—and qualities that schools reward in their students.
People of any religion can show religious intensity. But the research in my book “God, Grades, and Graduation: The Surprising Impact of Religion on Academic Achievement” focuses on Christian denominations, as they are the most prevalent in the United States, with approximately 63% of Americans who identify as Christian. In addition, religion surveys tend to reflect a Christianity-centric view, for example emphasizing prayer and faith rather than other types of religious observance. Therefore, Christian respondents are more likely to come across as very religious, simply based on the wording of the questions.
Based on a 2019 Pew survey and other studies, I estimate that about a quarter of American teens are intensely religious. This number also explains the tendency of people to say they attend religious services more than they actually do.
The permanent advantage
In my book, I examined whether intensely religious teens performed differently in school, focusing on three measures: high school GPA; likelihood of completing college; and college selectivity.
First, I analyzed survey data collected by the National Study of Youth and Religion, which followed 3,290 adolescents from 2003 to 2012. After grouping participants by religious intensity and analyzing their ratings , I found that on average, followers had about 10 percentage points. advantage.
For example, among working-class teens, 21% of faithful reported earning A’s, compared to 9% of non-faithful. Congregants were more likely to score higher even after controlling for a variety of other contextual factors, including race, gender, geographic region, and family structure.
Then, in collaboration with survey measurement expert Ben Domingue and sociologist Kathleen Mullan Harris, I used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent-to-Adult Health to see how more and less religious children of the same families behaved. According to our analysis, more intensely religious teens achieved higher high school GPAs, on average, even compared to their own siblings.
Researchers like sociologist Christian Smith have hypothesized that increased religiosity deters young people from risky behaviors, connects them to more adults, and provides them with more leadership opportunities. However, I found that including survey measures for these aspects of teenage life did not fully explain why abiders earned better GPAs.
To understand better, I went back to the National Youth and Religion Study, or NSYR, and analyzed 10 years of interviews with over 200 teenagers, all of whom had been given individual identifiers to link their responses to investigation and interview.
Many devotees commented on constantly working to imitate and please God, which led them to try to be conscientious and cooperative. This aligns with previous research showing that religiosity is positively correlated with these traits.
Studies have highlighted how habits such as conscientiousness and cooperation are linked to academic success, in part because teachers value respect. These traits are useful in a school system that relies on authority figures and rewards people who play by the rules.
Next, I wanted to learn more about the students’ academic performance, starting with where they enrolled. To do this, I matched NSYR data to the National Student Clearinghouse to get detailed information on how many semesters college respondents had completed and where.
On average, the faithful were more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than the non-faithful because success in high school sets them up for success in college—as my analyzes of siblings also show. The bump varies by socioeconomic status, but among working-class and middle-class teens, devotees are more than 1½ to 2 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than non-devotees.
Another dimension of academic success is the quality of the college one graduates from, which is typically measured by selectivity. The more selective the institutions from which students graduate, the more likely they are to pursue higher education and secure well-paying jobs.
On average, residents who earned A’s graduate from slightly less selective universities: schools whose incoming freshman class had an average SAT score of 1,135, compared to 1,176 among nonresidents.
My analysis of the interview data revealed that many congregants, especially girls from upper-middle-class families, were less likely to consider selective colleges. In interviews, religious teenagers repeatedly mention the life goals of parenthood, selflessness, and serving God—priorities that I believe make them less eager to attend college that is as selective as possible. This is consistent with previous research showing that conservative Protestant women attend colleges that are less selective than other women because they do not tend to see the primary goal of college as career advancement.
Notes without God
Being a good follower of the rules yields better ballots – but so do other provisions.
My research also shows that teenagers who say God doesn’t exist get ratings that are not statistically different from the ratings of the faithful. Atheist adolescents represent a very small proportion of the NSYR sample: 3%, which is similar to the low rates of American adults who report not believing in God.
In fact, there is a strong stigma attached to atheism. The types of teenagers who are willing to go against the grain by adopting an unpopular religious point of view are also the types of teenagers who are curious and driven. The NSYR interviews revealed that instead of being motivated to please God by behaving well, atheists tend to be intrinsically motivated to seek knowledge, think critically, and be open to new experiences. These provisions are also linked to better academic results. And unlike abiders, atheists tend to be overrepresented in the most elite universities.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.