Study Shows Church Attendance Benefits Teens' Education

  By Marianne Holman, Church News staff writer

  • 17 December 2012

Photo by Mark A. Philbrick.

Article Highlights

  • Authors of the study looked at more than 8,370 individuals between the ages of 14 to mid-20s across the country.
  • According to the study, habits often learned at church make a big difference in an educational setting.
  • The study also found that meaningful relationships with people at church have an internalizing influence that affects long-term educational enrollment.

“A religious context promotes interpersonal comfort and ease of communication that helps teens to go on and get educational attainment. It is more to do with having a good, quality relationship in which a teen is comfortable approaching the adult.” —James Phillips, study coauthor and graduate student at Rice University

Teens who go to church tend to go further with school, shows a recent study done by sociologists out of Brigham Young University and Rice University in Houston, Texas. Religiously affiliated youth are 40 percent more likely to graduate from high school than their unaffiliated peers, and 70 percent more likely to enroll in college, the study found.

“Religious teens tend to get and attain more education,” James Phillips, a coauthor of the study who is doing graduate work at Rice University, told the Church News.

Lance Erickson, the lead author of the study and a professor at Brigham Young University, and Brother Phillips looked at data collected from more than 8,370 teens across the country from many different backgrounds who are between the age of 14 to mid-20s. 

Researchers found that Catholic teens, mainline Protestants, and black Protestant congregations are twice as likely as unaffiliated teens to finish high school and about 80 percent more likely to enroll in college. Jewish and LDS youth have the highest odds of graduating from high school and enrolling in college.

Speaking about the LDS Church, Brother Phillips said, “It is no coincidence that the Church’s gospel teachings, which are found in the specialized curriculum to the youth, affect other areas of their life.”

Brother Erickson pointed out in an interview that although most of the time the reasons to go to church are religious and a manifestation of beliefs rather than for the purpose of achieving more in education, teens are still gaining many skills and abilities as they attend.

Drawing from his own LDS background he said, “I recognize that the Church did a lot of good things for me in this way. That’s not why I go. The conviction and testimony are the reasons, but there are practical ways that will make a difference in the outcomes in the world.”

Self-control, being able to sit through a certain period of time, being able to go to different classes with changes in leadership—all of those things often learned at church make a big difference in an educational setting.

Brother Phillips says those skills and behaviors help teens know “how to do life.”

“Behavior that can transfer into an educational setting can be useful and a benefit to them,” he said. “Another thing previous work has found—in terms of education outcomes—is that religious mentors tend to have short-term and long-term gains.”

Religious base mentoring—meaningful relationships with people at church who are outside of the classroom at school or their homes—has an internalizing influence that affects long-term educational enrollment.

“Having a religious based mentor … is really pivotal,” said Brother Phillips. Speaking specifically to leaders in the LDS Church he said, “Young Men and Young Women leaders and youth Sunday School teachers should be aware of the influence they have outside of religion. It doesn’t have to be that the religious mentor is a certain type of person. It is the modeling relationship that makes a difference.”

Educational mentors transfer information they have to their students as a “transfer of knowledge.” A religious mentor—a Young Men leader, for example—doesn’t need to fit certain criteria to be influential. It is the strong relationship that makes the biggest difference.

“Even an average person has an impact in instilling that motivation and character that will be influencing for youth to go on and get an education,” said Brother Phillips. “A religious context promotes interpersonal comfort and ease of communication that helps teens to go on and get educational attainment. It is more to do with having a good, quality relationship in which a teen is comfortable approaching the adult.”

Again speaking to an LDS audience, Brother Phillips said that those who have a calling in a youth program have more of a responsibility than they may think. 

“Anyone who has a good relationship with the youth and are able to communicate with them instills a great sense of competency and moral order that is very pivotal for areas outside of religion,” Brother Phillips said. “And I am sure these relationships help in other areas other than education. ... You have an impact in the life of a youth, which can lead to them doing well in educational attainment and overall life success.”

Looking beyond church attendance and its affects on graduation from high school, researchers found a correlation between prayer and college enrollment. They found that students who pray are more likely to enroll in college.

“Prayer mattered,” Brother Erickson said. “It is more private and formal, and it makes sense that if you have that internal drive to pray and to be engaged privately that would translate into a voluntary outcome.”

The study was published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion