If education research is a beachhead of pebbles examining test scores, graduation rates, and employment outcomes, a study linking education with the understudied, yet critically important outcome of marriage, is a rare and precious jewel. In a new report for the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, Albert Cheng, Patrick Wolf, Wendy Wang, and Bradford Wilcox examine the relationship between marriage outcomes and education across public, Catholic, Protestant, and secular private school sectors.

Previous research consistently documents the advantages of stable marriages. For married men and women, research links marriage to happiness, prosperity, and better health. The benefits of marriage extend beyond husband and wife, as children raised in married households have higher graduation rates, higher earnings, and lower premarital childbearing rates. Communities with greater proportions of married households have higher rates of economic mobility and lower rates of incarceration.

What do these researchers find in their latest study? And what does this mean for the Christian education sector?

The Protestant Family Ethic

Christian School OutcomesThe authors note being “particularly struck by the ways in which a ‘Protestant Family Ethic’ marked by more marriage, less divorce, and less non-marital childbearing appears to be a consequence of attending a Protestant school.”

For their analysis, the researchers use two nationally representative samples of U.S. adults (the Understanding America Survey and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth). In both samples, the authors find adults who primarily attended Protestant schools as children are most likely to be in an intact marriage and least likely to ever have a child out of wedlock. They also find former Protestant school students are less likely than public school students to ever have been divorced.

Even after adjusting for key demographic characteristics, such as race, mother’s education, and the financial stability of their childhood, a statistically significant difference between Protestant school students and public school students on all three of these outcomes persists.

Thinking About Why

The authors make clear that attending a Protestant school does not necessarily cause these marital outcomes. Nonetheless, they offer some thoughts as to why they consistently observe a Protestant school advantage.

The first reason relates to the cultural influence of these schools, what James Hunter and Ryan Olson call the “moral ecology” of a social institution. While they may not subscribe to a common creed, the authors are right to point out that nonreligious public and secular private schools “have their own value propositions and take moral stances” on sexual ethics, marriage, and family. Public schools, for example, may “stress the importance of being tolerant and accepting of family diversity or just avoid talking about loaded matters.”

Religious private schools draw from their faith traditions, which “explicitly speak to sexual ethics and conceptions of marriage or family.” But Catholic schools have recently become more “catholic” (read: universal), and therefore “open to those of various religious and moral perspectives, including beliefs about sexual morality and marriage” (see here and here). Albert Cheng and his coauthors continue, “By contrast, Protestant schools are more likely to stress the importance of marriage as a good in and of itself.” This cultural influence certainly generalizes to many Christian schools, which often have a statement of faith that affirms traditional sexual ethics as expressed in the context of biblical marriage.

The second reason has to do with peer composition. The researchers detect “stark differences in the peer environment of various school communities” in favor of Protestant school students. Young adults in Protestant schools were far more likely to report that in their grade, almost no students have ever had sex or use illegal drugs, and that almost all students go to church regularly. A similar proportion of Protestant, Catholic, and secular private school students reported that almost all students plan to go to college—nearly three times the rate of public school students.

Christian Education and the Protestant Family Ethic

The authors of this report wisely observe that “there is more to life than excelling at school and work.” A 2017 Barna and ACSI study found that among parents with students currently enrolled in Christian schools, their top educational goals for their children included “strong principles and values” (68%), “love for God and people” (65%), “wisdom” (60%), and “faithfulness and obedience to God” (54%).

Overall, this new report is a testament to the work being done by Christian schools. It provides encouraging evidence that these schools are thinking more broadly about their educational goals, providing a flourishing school culture that not only promotes academic excellence but also prepares its students to work out their faith, and encouraging them to glorify God in their schoolwork and in their families.

About the Author:

Matthew Lee - ACSI Authro Matthew Lee is an intern with Thought Leadership and Research at ACSI and a graduate student in education policy at the University of Arkansas. He is co-editor of the book Religious Liberty and Education: A Case Study of Yeshivas vs. New York. He can be reached via email at matthew_lee@acsi.org.

Questions to Consider:

What is your and your team’s reaction to the findings of this new research?


How can you let school families know about this new research and consider the implications for the value of a Christian school education?

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