See the  Web Resources page for further reading

Read the essays in the SSRC Forum on The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates

SSRC Guide: Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates

5. Do Religious Students Do Better?

Photo: David H. Wells

Religion and Academic Achievement

Given your average group of freshman students, is there any way to tell which ones are going to do well in school? Some studies say there is. Religious belief, religious group participation, and spiritual orientation are linked to academic motivation, good academic standing, and time spent studying.

Religious engagement appears to offer a positive influence in other ways. Students who participate in “spiritual” activities claim to have greater emotional wellbeing. Religious communities offer support in times of stress. Studies of African American students have found that students use prayer, Bible reading, church services, and meditation as important coping tools.

A detailed study at the University of Indiana reports among other findings that “involvement in religious activities and spirituality-enhancing activities does not seem to hinder and may even have mild salutary effects on engagement in educationally purposeful activities and desired outcomes of college.”

And as a rule, religious students are less likely to take part in the triumvirate of activities common to most students’ college experience: drinking, drugs, and partying.

Some studies even found that religious students tend to behave more ethically. Researcher Robin Perrin presented college students with a number of “ethical” situations and scenarios. 44% of born-again students chose the “more ethical” response to the scenario, while only 26% of non born-agains did the same. Students at religiously affiliated colleges are also more likely to be involved in pro-social causes.

But as Darren Sherkat’s essay in our forum notes, the high correlation of religion and academic achievement needs to be taken with a grain of salt. “Studies of students enrolled in college, and particularly ones which focus on students enrolled in religious or elite institutions, cannot fully convey the effects of religious factors on college success,” he says. “Most studies of the effects of religion on college success focus on personal religiosity or on religious participation, and these indicators are likely to produce positive effects. In contrast, more sophisticated longitudinal research shows that sectarian religious affiliation and biblical fundamentalism…have a substantial negative effect on educational attainment.”

In some cases, religious devotion can impede success in school. North Carolina State University professor Alyssa Bryant’s research found that some evangelical students devote so much time to their religious commitments that they have little room left for studying. And Sherkat has found that conservative Christians – especially women – tend to have lower rates of college attendance and completion overall, given the pressures within their faith communities toward early marriage and childrearing.

And then there is also the age-old chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the good student or the religious student? Do religious students do better because of their religious adherence? Or is it more that good students tend to join religious groups? It’s also unclear whether religious students do better than other students in academic or extracurricular communities, such as student government, choir members, or even the chess club.

More research remains to be done so that faculty and administrators – as well as students and their parents – can better understand the relationship between students’ religious engagements and their academic ones.


Further Reading:

Astin, A. W. 1993. “An Empirical Typology of College Students.” Journal of College Student Development 34(1): 36-46.

Bell, R. and H. Wechsler, et al. 1997. “Correlates of College Student Marijuana Use: Results of a U.S. National Survey.” Addiction 92(5): 571-581.

Blaine, B. and J. Crocker. 1995. “Religiousness, Race, and Psychological Well-Being—Exploring Social-Psychological Mediators.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21:1031-1041.

Bryant, A. N. 2004. “Campus Religious Communities and the College Student Experience.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles.

Constantine, M. G. and M. L. Miville, et al. 2006. “Religion, Spirituality, and Career Development in African American College Students: A Qualitative Inquiry.” Career Development Quarterly 54(3): 227-241.

Darnell, A. and D. E. Sherkat. 1997. “The Impact of Protestant Fundamentalism on Educational Attainment.” American Sociological Review 62(2): 306-315.

Kennedy, E. J. and L. Lawton. 1998. “Religiousness and Business Ethics.” Journal of Business Ethics 17: 163-175.

Kuh, G. D. and R. M. Gonyea. 2006. “Spirituality, Liberal Learning, and College Student Engagement.” Liberal Education 92(1): 40-47.

Mooney, M. 2005. Religion at America’s Most Selective Colleges: Some Findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF). Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

Ozorak, E. W. 2003. “Love of God and Neighbor: Religion and Volunteer Service among College Students.” Review of Religious Research 44(3): 285-299.

Perkins, H. W. 1994. “The Contextual Effect of Secular Norms on Religiosity as Moderator of Student Alcohol and Other Drug Use.” Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion 6: 187-208.

Perrin, R. D. 2000. “Religiosity and Honesty: Continuing the Search for the Consequential Dimension.” Review of Religious Research 41(4): 534-544.

Pollard, Lawanda J. and Larry W. Bates. 2004. “Religion and Perceived Stress among Undergraduates during Fall 2001 Final Examinations.” Psychological Reports 95: 999-1007.

Regnerus, M. D. 2003. “Religion and Positive Adolescent Outcomes: A Review of Research and Theory.” Review of Religious Research 44(4): 394-413.

Sherkat, D. E. and A. Darnell. 1999. “The Effect of Parents’ Fundamentalism on Children’s Educational Attainment: Examining Differences by Gender and Children’s Fundamentalism.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38(1): 23-35.

Zern, D. S. 1989. “Some Connections Between Increasing Religiousness and Academic Accomplishment in a College Population.” Adolescence 24: 141-154.