The debate over the merits of private schools versus public schools tends to revolve around their relative success in boosting test scores, graduation rates, and college admissions. Which are more successful in giving children the skills they need to thrive in today’s economy?

Utilitarian questions like these frame most contemporary discussions of the value of private versus public education.

But there is more to life than excelling at school and work. What about forming women and men of good character, good citizens, and good spouses and parents?

Civic and character formation are key educational priorities for most Americans.

According to the 2019 PDK Poll, nearly three-quarters of adults said that civics courses should be required for all students. The 2015 Education Next Poll found that an overwhelming majority agreed that character education should be emphasized “a lot” in schools.

The American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies have just released a fascinating report about how different types of American schools stack up against each other in forming character. The Protestant Family Ethic: What Do Protestant, Catholic, Private, and Public Schooling Have to Do with Marriage, Divorce, and Non-marital Childbearing? The results are surprising.

The authors, Brad Wilcox, Albert Cheng, Patrick J. Wolf, and Wendy Wang, observe that most parents expect more than academic and sporting success.

We suspect that parents are also concerned about how well schools form their sons and daughters for a future family life. That is, parents hope that schools maximize their children’s chances of forming a strong family later in life and minimize their chances of forming their own family before they are married or ready to be a parent.

They observe that schools are more than classrooms. They are also “moral communities”. They help put kids on one kind of civic and family path or another, whether they intend to do so or not. They inculcate students to abide by specific values, norms, practices, and habits as well as situate them within specific peer influences and social networks.

In the end, schools form students into a particular kind of person—with one kind of character or another. Different types of schooling influence a variety of character-related outcomes, including the odds that students become enmeshed in the criminal justice system, their level of civic engagement, and the moral obligations they feel towards their neighbors.

How successful are various types of schools at forming children for their future as parents? The researchers say:

Until now we have known little about how different types of schools are linked to students’ family life as adults. The limited research that exists in this area indicates that religious schooling is associated with higher rates of marriage among young adults, but we know less about how different forms of schooling are related to the risk of divorce in adulthood or to non-marital childbearing throughout one’s life.

To compile “The Protestant family ethic” report, the authors used nationally representative data from the Understanding America Study (UAS) and the National Longitudinal Survey 1997 (NLSY97) and explored links between adults’ prior schooling and their odds of marrying, divorcing, and having a child outside of marriage.

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.

Figure 1 (below) displays the proportion of American adults from each school sector who are in intact marriages, have ever divorced, and have ever had a non-marital birth (it does not adjust for background demographic characteristics like race, ethnicity, parental education, age, and gender. Nonetheless, these patterns remain unchanged even when results are adjusted using a regression framework for demographic characteristics). Specifically, the authors found that:


  • Adults who attended Protestant schools are more than twice as likely to be in an intact marriage as those who attended public schools. They are also about 50 percent less likely than public-school attendees to have a child out of wedlock.
  • Among those who have ever married, Protestant-school attendees are about 60 percent less likely than public-school attendees to have ever divorced.
  • Compared with public-school attendees, ever-married adults who attended a secular private school are about 60 percent less likely to have ever divorced.
  • Catholic-school attendees are about 30 percent less likely to have had a child out of wedlock than those who attended public schools.


The results suggest that boys and girls who attend private schools are more likely to avoid a non-marital birth and to get and stay married. This pattern is especially pronounced among Protestant-school attendees.

This suggests that these schools are more likely to foster a kind of “Protestant Family Ethic” among their students. It is an ethic that seems especially conducive to strong and stable families.

Wilcox and his colleagues conclude: “In general, then, this report suggests that private schools serve the public good more by fostering stronger and more stable marriages among American men and women compared to public schools … The bottom line: students who attend private schools are more likely to forge successful families as adult men and women.”

No doubt the results of this research need to be finessed. Which denominations are more successful in passing on family values? Which kinds of Catholic schools? Why do Protestant schools seem more successful than Catholic schools? How about homeschooling?

But the striking feature of this report is that it poses questions which are seldom raised in the media. What kind of schooling creates the most valuable human capital? What kind of schooling prepares children to be generous, hard-working, competent spouses and parents? In the end, isn’t that the most important outcome? For what shall it profit a man, if he shall score 1600 on the SAT, and end life divorced, unhappy and lonely?

This article has been republished under a Creative Commons license from MercatorNet.