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February 2, 2022+Ilana Horwitz
+Faith & Religion+Teaching

God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success

Educational attainment has begun to divide our society, distinguishing those who can anticipate long, healthy lives from those who cannot. Americans with a bachelor’s degree have more job opportunities, more economic security, better health, and longer lives. Because our education system is deeply stratified by social class (i.e., socioeconomic status [SES]), it is clear that not everyone has an equal chance of enjoying the benefits that come from attending college. Here is just one example of how much social class matters: People from the top SES quartile are about four times as likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree as people from the bottom SES quartile (62% vs. 13%).

Absent from most socioeconomic analyses of the United States is the fact that it is a very religious country — the most devout country among rich Western democracies. And typically left out of the class-based story about students in schools across the country is that about one in four has a deep relationship with God. While the separation of church and state means that religion and public education are technically separate domains, could teenagers’ relationships with God still pass through the public schoolhouse doors? In my book God, Grades, and Graduation, I show that intensely religious students tend to be more conscientious and cooperative, which leads them to overperform in educational attainment and undermatch in college choice. However, the extent to which religious intensity matters varies by teens’ socioeconomic status.

Religious Intensity

My work centers on Christianity because it is the most prevalent religion in America, with 65% of Americans identifying as Christians, including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, Catholics, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But my focus in this book is on religious intensity rather than a particular denomination within the broader tradition of Christianity. I am especially curious about deeply religious Christians who display high degrees of religiosity (as measured by how they say they behave and what they say they believe). I foreground the role of religious intensity because this is where the most profound political polarization exists in the current American landscape.

Some readers probably cannot think of many (if any) people who are intensely religious and perhaps see the United States on an inevitable march toward secularism. And it is true that studies consistently show that the share of Christians identifying Americans is declining while the share of nonreligious identifying Americans is growing.

But, the belief that religion is on its way out reveals more about the people who believe that (“strangers in their own land”) than about religion itself. Although average rates of religiosity in the United States are declining, the percentage of Americans who are deeply religious has not budged. On the basis of the 2003 National Study of Youth and Religion, which surveyed 3,290 teens and their parents, and the 2020 Pew study of 1,811 teens and their parents, I estimate that about one-quarter of teens are being raised by intensely religious parents who adopt a child-rearing style that I call “religious restraint.”

Religious Restraint

According to sociologists, one reason that class-based opportunity gaps exist is because parents adopt different child-rearing strategies based on their own educational backgrounds and professions. These class-based child-rearing strategies subsequently influence how children act in school and their grades. But I find that child-rearing logics aren’t just driven by class differences — they can also be driven by religious differences.

In my book, I introduce readers to the concept of religious restraint, which exists across all social class groups. An upbringing of religious restraint is consistently and constantly reinforced through children’s social environment, starting with the family. Intensely religious parents often follow a regimented approach to raising their children. Their homes are marked by a sense of order. Family time is prioritized: Family members eat meals together as much as possible, and harmonious relationships among them are often emphasized. And, of course, they share a common commitment to their faith, oftentimes reading scripture and praying together. Kids learn to follow rules, obey their parents, and be kind.

Importantly, this child-rearing strategy of religious restraint is implemented with the support of the local community. Intensely religious parents regularly attend church with their children, who socialize with other adults. Adults in religious communities watch over one another’s children, reinforcing the values taught at home. Crucially, for religious restraint to work and influence teens’ behavior, adolescents need to opt in. They need to feel intrinsically motivated to participate — to embrace religion themselves and make it their own. They need to believe and belong.

I refer to these intensely religious adolescents as “abiders,” a term I borrow from Lisa Pearce and Melinda Denton. On surveys, these are teens who espouse conservative Christian commitments, emphasize the role of faith in their daily lives and their felt closeness to God, and attend religious services and pray on a regular basis. My analysis of interview data reveals that what influences abiders’ educational pathways is that they learn to orient their entire life around God. They live their life to please God, which affects their attitudes and behaviors — both inside and outside of school.

From Secondary School to College

We need to look at the entire road from secondary school to college to understand how an upbringing of religious restraint affects one’s education. Thus far, scholars who have examined the relationship between students’ religious backgrounds and their academic outcomes have looked at either only K–12 education or higher education. But these are not isolated systems — students’ performance in elementary school paves the way for middle school, which subsequently affects their progression through high school, college, and potentially graduate school.

When we look at the road from secondary school into college, we can decompose teenagers’ academic trajectories into “performance effects” and “choice effects.” Performance effects reflect how students perform academically, with grade point average (GPA) being the most common measure of performance. Choice effects reflect the decisions that students make conditioned on their performance. Depending on how students perform and the choices they make about their education, some students have more opportunities than others. My book explains how religious restraint influences teenagers’ academic performance and educational choices.

The book’s central argument is that an upbringing of religious restraint affects the quantity and quality of education. Nonaffluent teens who are intensely religious complete more years of education than nonaffluent teenagers who are less religious. Affluent teenagers who are intensely religious complete similar years of education as less religious affluent teenagers, but those who are intensely religious attend less selective colleges. Put simply, an intensely religious upbringing helps kids complete more years of schooling, but often at lower-quality institutions. This is the paradox of religious restraint.

Religion is especially valuable to nonaffluent kids

Why does religious restraint affect the quantity and quality of education differently based on social class group? The answer lies in how religious restraint routes kids on the road to college. College is a steep and bumpy climb for nonaffluent kids because they lack the social and financial resources. Here is where an intensely religious upbringing becomes valuable: It offers resources to nonaffluent kids that their more affluent peers already get from their neighborhoods, parents, and social networks. Nonaffluent abiders get these forms of social capital from an intensely religious upbringing. In other words, religious restraint compensates for a lack of class-based social capital and boosts the academic performance of nonaffluent kids enough that the road to college becomes flatter and smoother.

For affluent kids, the road to college is already smooth, so religious restraint doesn’t make it much smoother. They tend to get good grades and therefore have a greater range of choices when it comes to colleges. And yet they end up at unexpected destinations. Here is where an intensely religious upbringing also impacts students’ academic trajectory: Religious restraint recalibrates their academic ambitions after graduation, causing them to rarely consider attending selective colleges despite their excellent academic performance in high school.

When it comes to performance, religiously restrained students who live their life for God fare better because they are conscientious and cooperative. This is the case regardless of students’ social class upbringing. Working-class abiders have better grades than working-class nonabiders, middle-class abiders have better grades than middle-class nonabiders, and so on. But this story changes when we look at the next stage involving educational choices.

Since religiously restrained students have better academic performance in high school, we would expect them to make more ambitious choices about higher education. This is generally the case, except in one social class group: adolescents from the professional class. When it comes to the transition to college, students from the professional class who live their life for God make less ambitious choices about where to attend college than we would expect given their stellar report cards. God-centered students undermatch in the college selection process because educational decisions are social decisions that highlight the effect of the home environment on norms and values surrounding education. God-centered students make choices that reflect their familial and social ties rather than choices that optimize their social class standing. Millions of young men and women do not live to impress college admissions counselors. For them, it is God who matters.

Despite the legal separation of church and state ensuring that religious doctrine is not taught in public schools, religion still finds its way into America’s classrooms. As this book shows, teenagers who live their life for God do not shed their religious commitments once they pass through the schoolhouse doors. It doesn’t matter to them that religion isn’t formally in the public schools because kids who have a deep relationship with God believe He is always watching- at home, in church, and in school. Emulating God is something kids strive to do no matter where they are or what they are doing. If you have any doubt of this, consider what 17-year-old Anthony said: “I don’t care about the school rules. I just care about my religion’s rules.” The dispositions that teenagers learn through religious restraint are in many respects deeper than those taught to them at school.

One of the central points of this book is that abiders’ advantage in school stems from a synergy between schooling and religion: Both institutions strive to maintain social order and reward children for behaviors that make order easier to maintain. Because religion and schooling promote the same ideals, the types of children who thrive in one institution are also likely to thrive in the other. But the abiders’ academic advantage may be more problematic than it seems at first glance. If we are rewarding children who are conscientious and cooperative — children who help teachers maintain social order — are we giving children a good education? Although abiders’ conscientious and cooperative nature may help them get better grades, this advantage may come at the expense of developing and encouraging critical thinking, creativity, and deeper engagement in the classroom.

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