Church-going teens graduate and attend college more, BYU-Rice study shows

Published: Saturday, Nov. 3 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Church-going teens get more education, according to a new BYU study.

Mark A. Philbrick

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Churchgoing teens are 40 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 70 percent more likely to enroll in college, according to a new study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Church attendance, as well as any religious affiliation, boosts academic advancement, according to the study from sociologists at Brigham Young University and Rice University.

Teens who identified as Mormon or Jewish had the greatest odds of graduating from high school and enrolling in college, based on data gathered for the study from more than 8,000 teens from all over the nation.

Teens who identified as Catholic, mainline Protestant or a part of black Protestant congregations were twice as likely to finish high school than nonaffiliated teens and 80 percent more likely to enroll in college.

Lance Erickson, lead author of the study and a sociologist at BYU, and co-author James Phillips, a sociologist at Rice University, looked at information about the academic levels reached by students with specific religions and affiliations.

"I grew up in the (LDS) Church, and it's always been a major part of my life," said Quinn Garber, a BYU student. "I spend several hours a week at church and one of the things that has helped me is with (the doctrine) you kind of already know where you're going."

When the questions of life are already answered, you can be ahead of the game and know what your life goals are, said Garber, who is studying business.

"You're just more focused on what you want out of life, and those goals seem to fit into your life," Garber said of religious affiliation and educational attainment.

In recent data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, about one in three adults in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were reared in the church have graduated from college, and another one-third of LDS adults have completed at least some college. Of all Americans ages 25 and above, 28 percent have college degrees, while 21 percent have completed some college, according to national numbers, as reported in a BYU news release.

One particular factor for the teens affiliated with religion was the involvement of mentors, including those with religious backgrounds, to help provide vision to students, according to the news release.

"The environment of religion is conducive to mentorship," Erickson told the Deseret News. "From a young age our social worlds are composed of people our own age. ... School is very age-graded, but religion is not age-graded. It gives youth the opportunity for contact with these adults. The nature of religious activity is kind of to form a community."

Often this is how mentorships can form, and Erickson believes it often simply comes down to having someone besides a teen's parents to care about him or her and to express that care.

Jewish and LDS youth had the highest likelihood of having religious mentors, Erickson said.

Though the researchers deemed high school completion to be unrelated to religious mentorships, they found that they did have an impact on college enrollment. The odds of enrollment were increased three times when a religious mentor was involved, as opposed to not.

How do religious mentors have a similar impact as nonreligious mentors? Religious participation in a mentor-mentee relationship makes it easier for "the development of interpersonal comfort, quality of connection and ease of communication — all of which are important components of successful mentorships," according to the study.

Church attendance was the best predictor for the students who graduated from high school, according to the study. However, teens' personal prayer habits best indicated those who later enrolled in college.

"This is important because it confirms that the immediate returns youth garner from religious participation, in terms of increased time on homework, reductions in truancy behavior, better grades, etc., persist to eventual educational attainment.

"The implication is that religious involvement during adolescence has long-term effects on a range of life outcomes that result from educational attainment, such as socioeconomic well-being and health," the study said.

"In high school we have compulsory education; whether someone is really goal-oriented or if they are not, they are still likely to go to school. But those who go to church will be able to navigate high school and all," Erickson said. "In college, it's not mandatory; prayer may be a sign of conviction. Then it would make more sense that it has more impact in college enrollment."

email: mmorgan@deseretnews.com

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