Children who attend Christian schools are significantly more likely than peers who attend public schools to marry and stay married as adults, and to refrain from making babies who lack married parents, according to a study published Sept. 16.
“Adults who attended Protestant schools are more than twice as likely to be in an intact marriage as those who attended public schools,” the joint American Enterprise Institute-Institute for Family Studies report says. “They are also about 50% less likely than public-school attendees to have a child out of wedlock.”
“Among those who have ever married, Protestant-school attendees are about 60% less likely than public-school attendees to have ever divorced,” the report continues. Strikingly, the study found that children of poorer parents had significantly better marriage and childbearing outcomes than children of wealthier parents if they attended Christian schools. Children with a financially unstable childhood were more likely to be married and less likely to have a child out of wedlock if they went to a Christian school as compared to a public school.
The opposite is true of children who attend public school, where poor children have significantly worse marriage, childbearing, and academic outcomes than wealthier children do.
“The ideals that students encountered in Protestant schools appear to compensate for a lack of economic resources when it comes to their own marital and child-bearing decisions,” report authors Albert Cheng, Patrick Wolf, Wendy Wang, and W. Bradford Wilcox write.
The study used two nationally representative, commonly used data-sets on 5,006 Americans, the Understanding America Study from the University of Southern California and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. These surveys follow participants for decades, making it possible to connect their educational experiences with their adult lives.
While the study cannot definitively prove that Christian schools caused their graduates’ better family outcomes later in life, the authors also controlled for demographic differences including race, ethnicity, parental education, age, and sex, and found the same positive patterns persisted. That’s an indicator of not just correlation, but also causation. When controlled for these factors, the study found, for example, “young adults who attended Protestant schools are about 70% more likely than their peers who attended public schools to be in an intact marriage.”
When controlling for such background factors “where all private schools are combined,” the authors write, “we see that young adults who attended public schools are about 30% more likely to divorce than those who attended private schools (p=0.04). Both young adults who attended Catholic schools and those who attended Protestant schools are significantly less likely than public-school attendees to have ever had a non-marital birth.”
Numerous studies have demonstrated the superiority of private and Christian schools over public schools for many societally beneficial outcomes, such as lower rates of crime, higher rates of educational achievement, increased patriotism, more volunteering, higher racial integration, and a higher tolerance for religious and political differences. Research has also established that attending a Christian school makes a child significantly more likely to remain in the faith as an adult. This new study suggests part of the reason for such outcomes is that every school teaches certain morality and habits, and Christian values are better for society than secular values.
“All schools do their part to put kids on one kind of civic and family path or another, insofar as they constitute moral communities, whether they intend to do so or not,” the AEI-IFS study notes, citing research to this effect. “They inculcate students to abide by specific values, norms, practices, and habits as well as situate them within specific peer influences and social networks.”
The study includes survey data from students at Protestant, Catholic, public secular, and private secular schools about the social norms in each type of school. Students in private schools were far less likely to say their peers engaged in premarital sex and illegal drug use, and far more likely to say most of their peers planned to attend college. Students in religious schools were far more likely to say their peers went to church regularly. As Judith Rich convinced much of the social science world with “The Nature Assumption,” peers and social environment strongly influence children’s norms, thinking, and character into adult life, possibly even more than parents do.
“Schools are embedded in a larger web of factors that fundamentally shape students. No aspect of the students’ lives — including their views of marriage, sexuality, and family — are untouched,” the AEI-IFS authors write.
“The results detailed in this report suggest that boys and girls who attend private schools are more likely to avoid a nonmarital birth and to get and stay married,” the authors conclude. “This pattern is especially pronounced among Protestant-school attendees, which suggests that these schools are more likely to foster a kind of ‘Protestant Family Ethic’ among their students. This is an ethic that seems especially conducive to strong and stable families.”
The norms, values, and habits of Christian schools are superior to those of public schools, in terms of supporting marriage and other key elements conducive to the common good. Centuries of social science and informed observation have shown marriage is crucial to a well-ordered society, and the lack of it means more crime, dependency, and despair.
The United States is a ground zero of an explosion in broken families, which strain our social safety nets and inflict deep misery on children and adults. We know of extremely few ways to effectively address the problem on a large scale. Social welfare initiatives in fact have a track record of highly expensive failure.
This study is one of many that suggest giving families the power to take their children’s public education dollars to a private school would be one of the few things elected officials could do that would actually help alleviate the familial primal wounds that affect so many Americans. At this point, the evidence is so robust as to suggest helping families access religious schooling is a moral imperative. Regardless of whether government officials do the right thing, families, churches, and charitable institutions have a moral duty to make support for religious education a top priority.