According to new research, a quiet force appears to curb men’s troubling decline in college attainment: religion.

In a New York Times essay last week, sociologist Ilana M. Horwitz detailed her study of the relationship between religious upbringing and educational outcomes among teenagers. She found that strong religious affiliation doubled the likelihood that men from low-income households secured bachelor’s degrees. 

I was intrigued with Dr. Horwitz’s findings not because I myself am religious. My husband and I both describe ourselves as “fallen” Catholics. 

Rather, her findings brought into focus what’s made me uneasy about recent attempts to improve postsecondary persistence. Many efforts to improve college graduation rates, particularly among historically underserved populations, emphasize access to information over connection. Horwitz’s study, on the other hand, offers a different formula for persistence in the age of inequality: tight-knit, reliable community, along with a sense of hope. 

Information and checklists aren’t an antidote to despair

Community and hope might sound overly sentimental. They are also ideas, however, that challenge some of the dominant narratives that reformers tout when it comes to improving “navigation and guidance” functions in schools and colleges. Most focus on improving access to information about colleges and employment opportunities. Or offering more hours with a counselor or advisor. As a result, recent years have seen the rise of chatbots that nudge students to complete college application checklists, tools promising to personalize career information, and marketplaces aimed at matching students and institutions.  

None of these ideas are bad. Nudging, personalizing, and matching all have research in their favor. But they are woefully incomplete when it comes to the lofty goal of leveling the playing field for students from low-income households. The real-life challenges students face and the complexities of completing college (not to mention putting a college degree to work to secure an upwardly mobile job) require social, not just informational, assets. 

That’s not only evident in Horwitz’s research, which looked at a fairly narrow sample and found strong effects among men, and less so among women. Her findings, however, echo prior research highlighting the social side of opportunity. For example, Brookings’ Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine found that low-income students’ acute sense of hopelessness—what the researchers dubbed “economic despair”—was discouraging them from staying in school. These effects were particularly pronounced in geographies with high rates of income inequality. Because members of their social networks lacked professional and personal opportunities, students saw limited value in a high school diploma. 

In a similar vein, Raj Chetty and his colleagues have found that neighborhood-level social capital is a key predictor of children’s eventual chances of upward mobility. For Horwitz, religious affiliation tracks with these findings. “Why does religion give [working class] boys… an academic advantage?” she writes. “Because it offers them the social capital that affluent teenagers can get elsewhere.”

A broader lens on systems of social support

For education leaders, studies like these merit a wider lens on what’s needed to drive more equitable postsecondary access and success among different subgroups. A broader outlook on the types of supports different students need can also open up more conversation about the various sorts of institutions–religious or not–that are best equipped to provide those supports. Both religious and secular institutions likely have a role to play. 

Using this wider lens on the drivers of postsecondary persistence, here are three observations to consider:

First, education investment in religious institutions could serve the underserved. Perhaps the most straightforward takeaway from Horwitz’s research is that religious institutions are better than educational ones at propelling some students (her research specifically reveals impact among working-class boys and men affiliated with Christian institutions, regardless of race) to and through college. Her findings suggest that for some students, the upsides of “belief and belonging” built in religious settings spill over into educational ones. 

By that logic, rather than trying to engineer secular solutions in the education sector, philanthropies and policymakers trying to boost college persistence, particularly among men, might consider funding the religious institutions that are already practiced in providing effective, high-touch support. 

Is that happening? Not to the extent their impact might warrant. In “Elevating the Role of Faith-Inspired Impact in the Social Sector,” authors Jeri Eckhart Queenan, Peter Grunert, and Devin Murphy detail the myriad ways in which faith-based organizations are significant hubs of social support. They found that faith-based organizations deliver 40% of vital human services across six representative cities. Yet, as they point out, there’s a disconnect between the role that these organizations play and the extent to which philanthropies see faith-based organizations as solutions to the challenges they are trying to solve. 

“While some individual philanthropists and community foundations have recognized faith-inspired organizations as platforms for impact, that perspective has not translated into funding from the largest institutional philanthropies—particularly those seeking to address the effects of poverty and injustice,” they write. In other words, funders could consider that existing faith communities might actually be better equipped than secular institutions to support the very students their philanthropies are hoping to serve.

Second, fostering purposeful community in secular, educational settings is possible. Although directly supporting faith-based organizations could bolster the results that Horwitz describes, that strategy won’t reach all young people. Moreover, it’s important to not misconstrue form for function. Religious institutions are not the sole brokers of the sorts of social capital that Horwitz identifies as helping young people beat the odds. Based on our own research, there are numerous secular models emerging in education that are showing promising results when it comes to building students’ social capital and fostering a sense of purpose.  

For example, nXu brings high schoolers together to explore their purpose, which they define as “a guiding intention which sits at the intersection of what you’re good at, what you enjoy, and what needs in the world activate you.” In the process, students also cultivate deep relationships with their peers and Coaches. Another organization we’ve studied, COOP, is a national nonprofit combating underemployment among low-income, first-generation college graduates. COOP has deliberately built a tight-knit cohort experience. Moreover, participants are coached by former program participants who themselves have secured good jobs, lending credibility and hope to the process. 

Both organizations also participated in a recent study with the Search Institute, which showed that building their participants’ social capital, along with promoting a “pay it forward” culture, helped participants further their education and employment goals.  

Third, resourcing existing communities could supercharge mutual aid. Religious or secular models of social support can buffer risk; but they won’t solve the root causes of inequality. As Horwitz points out, students with college-educated parents “tend to live in neighborhoods with a strong social infrastructure, including safe outdoor spaces. They have more familial and geographic stability, which means they rarely need to transfer between schools, disrupting their educations and severing social ties.” Investing directly in lower-income neighborhoods and networks could stem instabilities that make social support a more fragile asset. Put differently, by infusing financial capital into existing social networks, you can build social capital. 

Models like UpTogether (formerly Family Independence Initiative) and Union Capital Boston (UCB) aim to do just that. They combine financial investments with expanding networks in an effort to support social mobility. For example, Union Capital members, now over 2,800 strong, can earn Visa gift cards in exchange for the time that they participate in the Union Capital network, such as by volunteering with community programs, attending networking events, or taking courses. The program has spurred students to persist in school and enroll at impressive rates. According to Union Capital’s own surveys, as compared to when they joined the organization, UCB members have experienced an 11% increase in obtaining GEDs, a 14% increase in associate degrees, and a 21% increase in bachelor’s degrees.

There’s no shortage of efforts afoot today to improve navigation, advising, and guidance functions in the name of equity. Yet far too many risk turning a blind eye to the critical role of social capital. Supporting students equitably amounts to more than a checklist of short-term fixes and nudges, but also a reservoir of social support and hope. With research like Horwitz’s, we no longer have to take that on faith.  

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