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

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

How do students’ religious lives influence their academic ones? Image Source via Getty Images
Ilana Horwitz, Tulane University

In America, the demographic circumstances of a child’s birth substantially shape academic success. Sociologists have spent decades studying how factors beyond students’ control – including the race, wealth and ZIP code of their parents – affect their educational opportunities and achievement.

But one often overlooked demographic factor is religion. The U.S. is the most devout wealthy Western democracy. Does a religious upbringing influence teens’ academic outcomes?

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 better grades and complete more schooling than less religious peers. But researchers debate what these findings really mean, and whether the seeming effect of religiosity on students’ performance is really about religion, or a result of other underlying factors.

My latest research underscores that religion has a powerful but mixed impact. Intensely religious teens – who some researchers call “abiders” – are more likely than average to earn higher GPAs and complete more college education. By religious intensity, I refer to whether people see religion as 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 on its own is not enough to influence how children behave – they also need to be part of a religious community. Adolescents who see an academic benefit both believe and belong.

On average though, abiders who have excellent grades tend to attend less selective colleges than their less religious peers with similar GPAs and from comparable socioeconomic backgrounds.

The takeaway from these findings is not meant 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 abiders succeed – and qualities that schools reward in their students.

Religious landscape

People of any religion can demonstrate religious intensity. But the research in my book “God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success” centers on Christian denominations because they are the most prevalent in the U.S., with about 63% of Americans identifying as Christian. Also, surveys about religion tend to reflect a Christian-centric view, such as by emphasizing prayer and faith over other kinds of religious observance. Therefore, Christian respondents are more likely to appear as highly religious, simply based on the wording of the questions.

Based on a 2019 Pew survey and other studies, I estimate that about one-quarter of American teenagers are intensely religious. This number also accounts for people’s tendency to say they attend religious services more than they actually do.

The abider advantage

In my book, I examined whether intensely religious teens had different academic outcomes, focusing on three measures: secondary 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 teens from 2003 to 2012. After grouping participants by religious intensity and analyzing their grades, I found that on average, abiders had about a 10 percentage-point advantage.

For example, among working-class teens, 21% of abiders reported earning A’s, compared with 9% of nonabiders. Abiders were more likely to earn better grades even after accounting for various other background factors, including race, gender, geographic region and family structure.

Then working 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 from the same families performed. According to our analysis, more intensely religious teens earned higher GPAs in high school, on average, even compared with their own siblings.

But why?

Scholars like sociologist Christian Smith have theorized that increased religiosity deters young people from risky behaviors, connects them to more adults and provides them more leadership opportunities. However, I found that including survey measures for these aspects of teens’ lives did not fully explain why abiders were earning better GPAs.

To better understand, I went back to the National Study of Youth and Religion, or NSYR, and analyzed 10 years of interviews with over 200 teens, all of whom had been assigned individual IDs to link their survey and interview responses.

Many abiders made comments about constantly working to emulate and please God, which led them to try to be conscientious and cooperative. This aligns with previous research showing that religiousness is positively correlated with these traits.

Studies have underscored how habits like conscientiousness and cooperation are linked with academic success, in part because teachers value respect. These traits are helpful in a school system that relies on authority figures and rewards people who follow the rules.

A teenage boy in a blue shirt works on an assignment in class.
Traits like cooperation can play an important role in students’ success. Will & Deni McIntyre/Corbis Documentary via Getty Images

Post-graduation plans

Next, I wanted to know more about students’ college outcomes, starting with where they enrolled. I did this by matching the NSYR data to the National Student Clearinghouse to get detailed information about how many semesters of college respondents had completed, and where.

On average, abiders were more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than nonabiders, since success in high school sets them up for success in college – as also shown by my analyses of siblings. The bump varies by socioeconomic status, but among working-class and middle-class teens, abiders are more than 1 ½ to 2 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than nonabiders.

Another dimension of academic success is the quality of the college one graduates from, which is commonly measured by selectivity. The more selective the institutions from which students graduate, the more likely they are to pursue graduate degrees and to secure high paying jobs.

On average, abiders who earned A’s graduated from slightly less selective colleges: schools whose incoming freshman class had an average SAT score of 1135, compared with 1176 at nonabiders’.

My analysis of the interview data revealed that many abiders, especially girls from middle-upper-class families, were less likely to consider selective colleges. In interviews, religious teens over and over mention life goals of parenthood, altruism and serving God – priorities that I argue make them less intent on attending as highly selective a college as they could. This aligns with previous research showing that conservative Protestant women attend colleges that less selective than other women do because they do not tend to view college’s main purpose as career advancement.

Grades without God

Being a good rule follower yields better report cards – but so can other dispositions.

My research also shows that teens who say that God does not exist earn grades that are not statistically different from abiders’ grades. Atheist teens make up a very small proportion of the NSYR sample: 3%, similar to the low rates of American adults who say they don’t believe in God.

In fact, there is a strong stigma attached to atheism. The kinds of teens who are willing to go against the grain by taking an unpopular religious view are also the kinds of teens who are curious and self-driven. NSYR interviews revealed that rather than being motivated to please God by being well behaved, atheists tend to be intrinsically motivated to pursue knowledge, think critically and be open to new experiences. These dispositions are also linked with better academic performance. And unlike abiders, atheists tend to be overrepresented in the most elite universities.The Conversation

Ilana Horwitz, Assistant Professor, Fields-Rayant Chair in Contemporary Jewish Life, Tulane University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wanted: Nerds for Christ

Wanted: Nerds for Christ

If you’re an African American parent and you haven’t already done so, put this article on pause, and check out LZ Granderson’s take on why he is raising his son to be a nerd.

No, really. Do it now.  I’ll wait.

Done?

Okay, good.

Because here’s the thing. This sentiment is good and true, and if it’s true for African Americans in general, it’s ESPECIALLY true for believers in Christ, especially when it comes to the church.

We need more nerds in the church.

Let me explain. 

More Mathletes, Fewer Athletes

Granderson’s thesis is that children these days, especially Black children, need more positive reinforcement when it comes to pursuing academic achievement compared to athletic achievement, because our society’s broader American culture does a better job of celebrating sports than it does celebrating academics.

And if it’s true today, it was way more true in New Testament times. After all, there is a reason why the apostle Paul tended to use athletic competition as a metaphor for spiritual living.

On one level, this is good for us — and by us, I mean the average, churchgoing Black person who, let’s be honest, probably needs more physical activity than just doin’ a little shoutin’ dance one a week during church.

Since the obesity epidemic has a stronghold deep inside the church, and considering the fact that children have been affected so deeply, and considering for some young folks, sports programs are the best thing keeping them off the street and out of trouble (it’s cliché, but it’s true), I heartily affirm the need for kids — and adults — to participate in sports. Sports are a good thing for people of all ages, because keeping active is an important part of overall wellness.

(*cue my Stephen A. Smith voice*)

Howevah!

The pendulum needs to start swinging the other way.

In 1 Timothy 4:8, the apostle Paul points out the obvious — physical training has a measure of value, but godliness is valuable across every facet of life. So the whole reason why Paul used the example of physical training is because, in the time and culture of his day (influenced by the Aristotelian values of ancient Greece), athletic competition was assumed to be the dominant form of celebrated excellence. Paul made his appeal in the context of those values and was challenging his people to turn their attention to something of greater value.

This cultural preoccupation with athletics continues today, and if you’re not sure if that’s true or not, consider the global influence of one of the most dominant sports brands today, named after the Greek goddess of victory.

This is why Granderson wrote what he did. 

Musicians: Icons of the Black Church

For Black folks in the church, the officially sanctioned sacred pursuit is not athletic, but musical. For a variety of reasons, music — specifically, gospel music — has been the lifeblood of the African American church experience. And on balance, this is a good thing.

But just like athletes in the broader popular culture, it’s gotten out of balance. In many church communities, musicianship is more of a valued commodity than biblical literacy.

So what we need are more Bible nerds, so to speak. We need people who get excited about textual exegesis just as much as rhythms and chords. We need people whose commentary collections are broader and more balanced than their music collections.

After all, there’s a reason why Paul told Timothy to “study and show yourself approved;” the flock needs to be protected from false teaching. And unfortunately, false teaching is a common side effect when we elevate gifted musicians to the status of spiritual leaders, as tends to be the case with high-profile musicians in the church. That’s not to say that there are no gifted musicians who are worthy of spiritual leadership — indeed, there are many, and we ought to thank God for them and honor them. But we can’t turn a blind eye to character issues or lack of training when it comes to handling the word of God just because a person is blessed with the ability to sing or play an instrument.

People are watching, y’all.

Granderson pointed out the fact that kids can tell what we really value by the way we revere athletes and make fun of spelling-bee contestants.

This dynamic is so, so true in the church. And if you’re a church leader and you doubt what I’m saying, then hold an intensive Bible training conference on the same day as a big time gospel music concert, and see how many of your people you get to show up.

We have to get it together in this area and fast, because our ability to do God’s work is at least partially dependent upon what we believe about Him, and when we prioritize high production values and strong musicality over solid biblical teaching, either as leaders or as followers, we give our watching neighbors the unintended message that music is what saves people, and not God.

No wonder so many musicians have left the church … if music is what saves, then who needs God?

Ministry: Theology in Action

Christian ministry is simply Christian theology in action. So if we don’t pay attention to our theology, then our ministry will miss the mark, no matter how good it sounds coming through our speakers.

I stress this point only because I also don’t want to give the impression that the nerd path is, itself, a path to salvation. Being a nerd is no more intrinsically holy than being an athlete or a singer. The point is not to simply acquire a wealth of knowledge and expertise, because sometimes the only thing knowledge does is make your head bigger. The point is to live out one’s calling as effectively and wholeheartedly as possible.

That’s why you have voices like Efrem Smith, challenging the role of Reformed theology in holy hip-hop. Not because he doesn’t like holy hip-hop or Reformed theologians, but because, in his estimation, that particular theological strain is insufficient in providing a complete foundation from which to make a long-term impact. And Christian emcees like Lecrae and Flame wouldn’t do what they do if they weren’t interested in making an impact.

So let’s get out there and make our God known. Let’s put him on display by giving him our minds as well as our bodies. And if, in the process of doing so, we risk being labeled as nerds or geeks or whatever, then so be it. When Paul said he would be all things to all people, I’m sure nerds would’ve been included in that list, if, y’know, that terminology would’ve been popular then.

But since it wasn’t then, I’m saying it now.

We need more nerds for the gospel.