AEI report: Graduates of Protestant schools most likely to have intact marriages, fewer divorces

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A new report from the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute concluded that those who attended Protestant private schools as children were less likely to get divorced and have children out of wedlock than their public school peers.

AEI’s Institute for Family Studies examined data from the Understanding America Study from 2015 and 2016, as well as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, first conducted in 1997. They compiled their findings in a report titled “The Protestant Family Ethic: What Do Protestant, Catholic, Private, and Public Schooling Have to Do with Marriage, Divorce, and Non-Marital Childbearing?”

“Men and women who have been educated in a private school tend to be more likely to be married, less likely to have ever divorced, and less likely to have had a child outside of wedlock,” the report, released Wednesday, showed. 

Sixty-three percent of adults who attended Protestant schools were in an intact marriage compared to just 42% of adults who attended public schools, according to the 2015-2016 study. The share of Catholic and secular private school attendees who were in an intact marriage stood at 49% and 53%, respectively.

The results of the Understanding America Study demonstrated a similar pattern regarding the differences in divorce rates among alumni of Protestant, Catholic, secular private schools, and public schools.

Forty-three percent of adults who graduated from public schools have been divorced at least once. The share of Catholic School alumni who have ever been divorced stood at 40% while the share of Protestant and secular private school graduates who have been divorced stood at 21%.

Among adults who attended public school, 26% have had a child out of wedlock compared to 16% of Catholic school alumni. Among Protestant and secular private school graduates, 11% said that they have had a child out of wedlock.

The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, cited in the AEI report, asked students who attended school in the late 1990s a series of questions about their school environments. The results of this inquiry showed that students at different types of schools had varying perceptions about morality.

When asked if “almost NO kids ever had sex in their grade,” only 16% of public school students answered in the affirmative. A much higher share of Protestant school students (75%) reported that almost no students in their grade ever had sex while 51% of secular private school students said the same; 38% of Catholic school students said that almost none of their peers engaged in sexual activity.

Just 37% of public school students reported that “almost NO kids use illegal drugs;” 83% of Protestant School attendees reported an almost drug-free school environment, along with 65% of secular private school students and 55% of Catholic school students.

The reported difference in regular religious service attendance between students at religious schools and those who attended secular private schools and public schools was stark: 61% of Protestant school students said that almost all of their peers attended church services regularly compared to 21% of Catholic school students, 5% of public school students, and 4% of secular private school students.

The results of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth indicated a noticeable difference in post-secondary school plans among public and private school students. While 20% of public school students said that almost all of their peers planned to attend college, 62% of Catholic school students said the same; 60% of Protestant school students and 57% of secular private school students reported that a high percentage of their peers planned on pursuing higher education.

Twenty years later, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth looked at the marriage and family lives of the subjects they had surveyed in their 1997 report. The results demonstrated that 43% of millennials who attended secular private and public schools were in intact marriages compared to 51% of their Catholic peers and 57% of those who attended Protestant schools as children.

Thirty-one percent of the millennials who attended public schools had been divorced. The share of respondents who had ever been divorced was much lower among those who attended Catholic (18%), secular private (20%), and Protestant schools (21%).

The share of millennial public school graduates surveyed in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth who had a child out of wedlock (36%) was more than double that of their private school peers. Fourteen percent of Protestant school graduates, 16% of Catholic school alumni, and 19% of those who attended secular private schools had at least one child outside of marriage.

In an effort to account for some of the factors that led to adults who attended different types of schools as children to see varying outcomes in their marriage and family lives as adults, the report compared the schools’ teachings on the controversial issues of marriage and human sexuality.

“When it comes to family life, public schools stress the importance of being tolerant and accepting of family diversity or just avoid talking about loaded matters touching on marriage, divorce, and non-marital childbearing,” the report explained. “Catholic schools often address church teaching regarding human sexuality and marriage, but some schools do not focus on these controversial teachings so much as on less controversial virtues and values, like charity, forgiveness, and the Golden Rule.”

In contrast to many Catholic schools, which have “sought to be more ‘catholic’ in the sense of being open to those of various religious and moral perspectives, including beliefs about sexual morality and marriage,” the report asserted that “Protestant schools are more likely to stress the importance of marriage as a good in and of itself—and of having and raising children in marriage.”

“Religious schooling—and particularly Protestant schooling—is associated with higher rates of stable marriage, lower rates of divorce, and lower rates of out-of-wedlock births, even after controlling for key aspects of respondents’ backgrounds,” the report continued.

Explaining the impact that intact marriages and the traditional nuclear family have on society as a whole, the report emphasized, “Men and women who forge strong and stable marriages are typically happier, healthier, and more prosperous. Any children they have are also more likely to be in better shape emotionally, economically, and educationally.

“The communities dominated by successfully married men and women are more prosperous, economically mobile, and safer.”

The report was authored by W. Bradford Wilcox, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Wendy Wang, the director of research at the Institute, Albert Chang, a professor at the University of Arkansas, and Patrick Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

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