Godly Guardrails Keep Kids on the Academic Track

GGG book cover 197x300 - Godly Guardrails Keep Kids on the Academic Track(This article previously was published on the Institute for Family Studies website.)

It is commonly thought that devoutly religious people are less educated. If that were the case in decades past, it is not so anymore, and certainly not among the younger generation. Very religious youth are more likely to get better grades than non- and moderately-religious youth, and they graduate from college to a greater extent. Those are the findings of Tulane University professor Ilana M. Horwitz in her book God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success (Oxford University Press, 2022).

Religion is usually associated with improving one’s prospects in the afterlife. But literally thousands of studies in recent decades confirm how powerful religion can be in improving prospects in this life, mainly in the areas of mental and physical health. God, Grades, and Graduation is a valuable addition to the literature, adroitly explaining how religion can improve educational outcomes. A dry read it is not: Horwitz supplements her extensive findings with scores of personal stories of adolescents. In fact, I found myself reading excerpts from those stories to my own teens, in the hope of inspiring them.

Horwitz focuses on Christian students, mainly because in the Christian-majority United States, they constitute the vast majority of study subjects. And she has no Christian axe to grind; currently Assistant Professor and the Fields-Rayant Chair in Contemporary Jewish Life at Tulane, she is “fairly agnostic about God.” She comes from an academic background of studying educational outcomes based on race, class, and gender. But about a decade ago while a graduate student at Stanford, she could not help but notice how many of her neighbors centered their lives around church and faith, and wondered if that shaped their children’s educational trajectory. She searched for studies on this but came up empty. So she started doing studies of her own.

Drawing from sources that include the National Study of Youth and Religion, the National Student Clearinghouse, and more than 200 interviews, among her findings is that devoutly religious high school students are about 10 percent more likely to earn A’s than other students, “which is statistically quite substantial,” she notes. They are about 40 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. And they are not few in number; Horwitz estimates that about one in four students in American schools are “abiders” as she calls them – i.e. religiously devout, who orient their everyday lives around their faith.

The grades and graduation rates of abiders versus nonabiders (i.e., non- or moderately religious adolescents) vary depending on race, gender, and socioeconomic status. The gap is particularly pronounced among working- and middle-class white males, who are prone to engage in risky behaviors that derail them from academic achievement. But for a subset, “godly guardrails” keep them on track, she explains.

John was a case in point. Among kids like him whose parents are high-school graduates, only about 15 percent end up getting a college degree. Too many things knock such kids off the road to higher education, such as school suspensions, substance abuse, and a home environment where literacy and learning are not prioritized. But John was religiously devout. His grades weren’t the best, but he did not drink, use drugs, party, or even use profanity. He obeyed his parents and teachers and exercised self-discipline—qualities that helped him go on to higher education.

These days, the ideals of public schools and of religious institutions may seem worlds apart, but one thing they have in common is an emphasis on maintaining social order. A “hidden curriculum” in school is the “three Rs”—rules, routines, and regulations. A central principle of Christianity, writes Horwitz, is a commitment to authority, as well as delaying gratification and following norms and rules. Such habits are highly valued in the public school system. Devoutly religious persons tend to score higher on conscientiousness, which entails being self-disciplined and organized. Cooperation and agreeableness–connoting being considerate, kind, and sympathetic–are factors that tend to boost religious students’ school success as well. These personality traits translate into refraining from skipping class or school, taking more advanced courses, completing homework and curricula, having more academically-oriented friends, and having fewer behavioral problems.

There is something of a paradox in her findings: abiders who come from upper-middle-class and affluent families, especially females, tend to choose less-selective colleges even though they could get into more selective ones. The result can be lower lifetime earnings. Why do they “undermatch”? Reasons given in interviews include a desire to: stay local to be closer to family; attend conservative Christian colleges to stay closer to their faith; live at home rather than on campus in order to avoid an intense party scene; and to avoid spending too much time with people who have different morals. These students are not necessarily eager to climb social class ladders, preferring a God and family-centered life, observes Horwitz.

They may take a financial hit. But attesting to the adage that money does not buy happiness, it is their overall wellness that counts. “The pattern was clear,” writes the author. “Abiders are significantly less likely to experience emotional, cognitive, or physical despair. They feel less anxious, healthier, and more optimistic about life. Without a doubt, their deep relationship with God helps them overcome several challenges they bump up against. Abiders are simply more resilient. This is driven by their involvement in a religious social community but also their steadfast belief in God.”

In her concluding chapter is a call to action: admissions counselors of selective colleges and universities should seek out religiously devout applicants, not only to boost and maintain the number of top-quality students but also to promote intellectual diversity. There should be an “openness by college admissions counselors to view religious and ideological diversity as valuable when admitting applicants.”

That recommendation is a breath of fresh air in a world where devout Christians on campus often feel they are under siege. Unfortunately, powerful factors are working against increased ideological diversity, not only coming from professors and administrators who are disproportionately atheist, agnostic, or even outright anti-Christian, but also from prospective religious students themselves, many of whom are highly reluctant to step into such an environment. So in addition to Horwitz’s recommendation to make greater efforts to attract abiders, selective colleges and universities should make similar efforts to recruit religiously devout faculty and administrators—and not just Muslims but also Christians and Orthodox Jews.

Speaking of Muslims and Orthodox Jews, Horwitz does not address the extent to which adolescents of those faiths improve their grades and graduation rates, perhaps because survey data is lacking. She does indicate that unlike certain abiders, Jewish adolescents are eager to attend selective colleges, but here she does not differentiate between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

In any event, it is quite ironic that religious belief and practice are declining while the research on its mental and physical health benefits keeps piling up. With Horwitz’s book, add educational benefits to the mix. By raising a child to be a good worshipper, parents are likely to enjoy the added benefit of raising a good student.

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