Christian Faith Gets High Grades for Academic Success

In a new book, Jewish sociologist Ilana Horwitz documents the positive relationship between a committed Christian upbringing and grades and college outcomes.

Having grown up in a family that didn’t openly practice their Jewish faith, the Tulane University sociologist knew few people like those she decided to study and write about in her book.
Having grown up in a family that didn’t openly practice their Jewish faith, the Tulane University sociologist knew few people like those she decided to study and write about in her book. (photo: Billion Photos / Shutterstock)

Catholics who believe their faith offers both eternal and temporal benefits might not be surprised to learn that teens who take their religion seriously perform better academically, but it was something of a revelation to Ilana Horwitz, who holds a doctorate from Stanford University in education and Jewish studies.

Having grown up in a family that didn’t openly practice their Jewish faith, the Tulane University sociologist knew few people like those she decided to study and write about in her book, God, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success.

However, when she learned through a 2014 Pew “Religious Landscape” study that a fourth of all Americans still organized their lives around religion, she was intrigued and wanted to know whether religious upbringing influenced academic outcomes. Using data from the “National Study of Youth and Religion” and linking it to the National Student Clearinghouse, Horwitz  followed 3,290 teens from 2003 to 2012, examining the influence religion had on grades and college choice and completion. 

What she found was that there was indeed a positive relationship between a conservative Christian upbringing and grades and college outcomes. Horwitz described the teens for whom this was true as “intensely religious,” meaning they attended church weekly or more often, felt close to God, prayed by themselves on a regular basis and emphasized the role of faith in their daily lives and decision-making. 

She told the Register that in acknowledging a personal relationship with God, “The Catholic and evangelical [Protestant] kids didn’t look that different to me in terms of how much of their lives were organized around God and religion and doing things that would please God.” Of those she writes about, 50% were conservative Protestant and 14% were Catholic. Another 15% were Black Protestant, 12% were mainline Protestant and 6% were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All were public-school students.



Horwitz also refers to such teens as “abiders,” a term she borrowed from sociologists Lisa Pearce and Melinda Denton, authors of A Faith of Their Own: Stability and Change in the Religiosity of America’s Adolescents. “These abiders,” she writes in her book, “seek to please God, which affects how they perceive themselves, how they carry themselves and how they imagine their future.” They follow the rules and respect those in authority, qualities valued by both churches and schools. So, in seeking to please God, Horwitz found, abiders develop the attributes that help them get good grades. 

One such abider who captured her interest was Jacob, a Catholic teen whose God-centered way of looking at himself translated into conscientious and cooperative behavior both in and out of school. In interviews with researchers, Jacob said he looked to the Bible and Christian teaching to guide his behavior and day-to-day decisions. For example, he decided early on not to do drugs because he considered it sinful and harmful to his body. He also received all As in middle school and mostly As in high school. 

Although he came from a working-class background, Jacob went on to attend a private liberal arts college and then medical school, eventually becoming a surgeon.

His story reflects one of Horwitz’s findings that religion’s influence on academic success is greater for teens who are less affluent. This is because, in addition to instilling in them the qualities that lead to success in the classroom, it provides them with the kind of “social capital” more affluent teens get from their neighborhoods, parents and social networks. For nonaffluent teens, belonging to a church, for example, provides access to the kinds of adult ties that can be sources of opportunities, resources and information. These in turn might lead to a summer job, a recommendation for acceptance into a program or even help with a car repair or computer problem. 

Where religious belief and belonging work well for teens like Jacob, however, Horwitz found it does not necessarily lead to as high a degree of success for abiders, especially girls, from well-off middle and professional-class families. Teens in those families, she discovered, often choose less prestigious colleges that are closer to home because, although they might qualify academically to get into better schools, they are motivated by other faith-based considerations such as altruism, raising a family and service to God. “They overperform in educational attainment, but undermatch in college,” Horwitz said. Likewise, they see a prestigious career as possibly being at odds with living a life devoted to God. 

Horwitz said she also found that teens who grow up in intensely religious homes are not particularly open to new experiences, including having their religious beliefs questioned in college. They may have heard, for instance, that universities are filled with liberal professors and are worried about having their views challenged by their peers and professors, she said. “It prompts them to stay closer to home, perhaps live at home, and they yearn for social homogeneity. Whereas other kids have what we call diversity desire, these kids want a lot of sameness.” As a result, Horwitz said, they sometimes will choose a religious school or one in their home city or state.


Catholic Corroboration

Mark Hart, chief innovation officer of Life Teen, a Catholic youth ministry with a presence in 2,000 parishes, said Horwitz’s findings confirm what he has seen among his own three teen children and their friends. All, he said, take their faith seriously, are involved in either a Life Teen group for high-school students or Edge group for middle-school students and are straight-A and honor-roll students. Speaking of his own children, he said, “There is a rhythm and a structure to our kids that is borne out of their faith life that absolutely translates to their academic success.” 

Hart said it makes sense to him that teens who are religious do well academically because they experience a certain freedom in knowing their lives are oriented to God, leaving them less pressured to create their own reality, get into the right college or choose the right major. “When you come in touch with the fact that God is the author of your life and he created you and he has a plan for you, there’s a peace with that.”

Hart’s oldest daughter illustrates Horwitz’s finding about religious teens choosing to go to college close to home. “My eldest could have gone anywhere she wanted,” Hart said. Instead, she asked if she could live at home, go to college locally and continue serving her parish as a volunteer. “She said, ‘I have a community here, my family here, and this is what I want to do.’” In addition to her college studies, Hart’s daughter serves her parish between five and 10 hours a week. “She’s thriving, she’s happy, and she has no regrets,” Hart said.  

Ray Guarendi, Catholic psychologist and author, said Horwitz’s findings corroborate his own work and experience. “I’ll make it real simple: If there’s a God, he knows the best way to live. To the degree we live according to God’s ways, we will be not only more content here, but more successful.” Guarendi said this is the premise of his latest book, Jesus the Master Psychologist. “If Jesus is God, he knows the human psyche.” 


Faithful Families

Horwitz’s findings, Guarendi said, also echo another of his books, Back to the Family, which was based on interviews with 100 families who had been nominated by “Teachers of the Year” and cited as having responsible, kind, moral and well-adjusted children who excelled academically and in interactions with classmates and adults. When Guarendi asked parents what they were doing to raise such kids, he said, “The No. 1 theme to emerge very prominently was spiritual faith. … We didn’t even ask about faith, but it came out so prominently, we had to explore it.” 

He said more than 90% of the families in the study were practicing some kind of faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Of their 387 children, none had ever been in serious trouble with the law, none had been suspended from school, and none had had a problem with alcohol or drugs. 

Indeed, Horwitz uses the word “compliant” to describe the abider teens she studied. This often caused them to behave in kind ways, she said.

Being compliant, Horwitz added, also made abiders satisfied with the existing social order. “These are the kinds of kids who grew up with traditional gender norms and social hierarchies. They’re not growing up to be the kinds of people who think a lot outside the box or about changing norms around the different social structures in our country.” 

She underscored, “They were kids who just felt like it was really important to follow rules, listen to adults, to follow God’s plan.”