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What do students’ beliefs about God have to do with grades and college?

(The Conversation) — In America, the demographic circumstances of the birth of a child shaping academic success. Sociologists have spent decades studying how factors beyond students’ control, including race, richness and Postal code from their parents – affect their studies Opportunities and success.

But an often overlooked demographic factor is religion. The United States is the richest and most pious western democracy. Does a religious education influence the school 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 success. These studies show that more religious students earn best grades and complete more schooling than their less religious peers. But researchers debate what these findings really meanand whether the apparent effect of religiosity on student performance is really related to religion or other underlying factors.

My latest research stresses that religion has a powerful but mixed impact. Intensely religious adolescents – whom some researchers call “supporters— 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.

religious landscape

People of any religion can show religious intensity. But research in my book”God, Grades, and Graduation: The Surprising Impact of Religion on Academic Achievementfocuses on Christian denominations because they are the most prevalent in the United States, with about 63% of Americans who identify as Christians. In addition, surveys of religion tend to reflect a Vision centered on Christianity, for example by 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 Pew Survey 2019 and other studies, I estimate that about a quarter of American teenagers are intensely religious. This number also explains the tendency of people say they attend church 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 the survey data collected by the National study of youth and religionwhich tracked 3,290 teens from 2003 to 2012. After grouping participants by religious intensity and analyzing their ratings, I found that, on average, the faithful had an advantage of about 10 percentage points.

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 work with an expert in investigative measurement Ben Domingo and sociologist Kathleen Mullan HarrisI used data from National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health to see how the more or less religious children of the same families behaved. According to our analysismore intensely religious teens achieved higher high school GPAs, on average, even compared to their own siblings.

But why?

Academics like the sociologist Christian Smith to have theorized that increased religiosity deters young people from engaging in risky behaviors, connects them with 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 better understand, I went back to the National Study of Youth and Religionor NSYR, and analyzed 10 years of interviews with more than 200 teenagers, all of whom had been given individual identifiers to link their survey and interview responses.

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 search 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 characteristics are useful in a school system that relies on authority figures and reward those who follow the rules.

Traits like cooperation can play an important role in student success.
Will & Deni McIntyre/Corbis Documentary via Getty Images

Post-Graduation Plans

Next, I wanted to learn more about the students’ academic performance, starting with where they enrolled. I did this by matching the NSYR data to the National Student Information Clearinghouse for 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 prepares them for success in college – as also shown by my sibling analyzes. 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 graduated from, which is usually measured by selectivity. The more selective the institutions from which students graduate, the more likely they are to pursue higher education and to secure well-paying jobs.

On average, residents who earned A’s graduate from slightly less selective colleges: 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 aligns with Previous search 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%, similar to low rate American adults who say they don’t believe in God.

In fact, there is a strong the 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 bound with better school results. And unlike the faithful, atheists tend to be overrepresented in the most prestigious universities.

(Ilana Horwitz, Assistant Professor, Fields-Rayant Chair in Contemporary Jewish Life, Tulane University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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