Cornell University: Girls raised by Jewish parents more likely to graduate college

A new sociology study has found that girls raised by Jewish parents are 23 percentage points more likely to graduate from college than girls with a non-Jewish upbringing, even after accounting for their parents’ socioeconomic status. Girls raised by Jewish parents also graduate from more selective colleges, according to the study.

Researchers from Cornell, Tulane and Stanford universities followed 3,238 adolescents for 13 years to conclude that girls raised by at least one Jewish parent acquire a particular way of viewing the world that influences their education choices, career aspirations and various other experiences.

The study, “From Bat Mitzvah to the Bar: Religious Habitus, Self-Concept and Women’s Educational Outcomes,” published February 22 in the American Sociological Review.

Religious upbringing is a key factor that can help explain why some people are not only much more likely to go to college than others but also more likely to go to more selective schools, according to co-author Landon Schnabel, assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Just as we shouldn’t ignore things like class, race or gender when trying to understand the educational landscape, we shouldn’t ignore religion,” Schnabel said.

The researchers came to their conclusions based on survey data from the National Study of Youth and Religion and the National Student Clearinghouse. Among the findings: girls raised by Jewish parents fared better than boys raised by Jewish parents, a trend that is opposite of what happens to conservative Protestant women where boys fared better.

Religious subcultures, said lead author Ilana Horwitz, an assistant professor at Tulane University, are not just shaped by theology but by such factors as historical events, demographic patterns and political concerns. For centuries, the daily life of Jewish people, regardless of social class, occupation or age, was organized around reading and studying Torah. As a result, Jews became literate much earlier than other people.

That focus on schooling continued through the ages, with education woven into the fabric of contemporary Jewish life. As Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century, formal schooling became increasingly important for occupational success. Education played such a significant role in helping Jews survive in Europe and in the United States that it now permeates Jewish religious subculture, according to the study.

The gender-egalitarian nature of Judaism, especially non-Orthodox Judaism, also matters. Girls raised by Jewish parents have distinctive gender self-concepts that stem from Jews’ strong levels of support for gender egalitarianism. Jewish parents sent messages to their sons and their daughters that they can aspire to professional careers, Horwitz said.

“They developed a self-concept marked by openness to new experiences and a vision of themselves as prominent career women,” Horwitz said. “They were highly attuned to what these careers take and organized their educational experiences to position themselves for elite colleges so they could realize their professional visions and attain self-concept congruence.”

This is the first study to show that the level of embeddedness in and exposure to a religious subculture through parents matters for educational outcomes.

“One of the biggest stories in higher education is the gender gap in education and the reversal that’s occurred with women now more likely than men to go to college,” Schnabel said. “The gender and education story is incomplete without thinking about religion because religion and gender are so intertwined.”

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