Sociologists from Brigham Young University and Rice University found religiously-affiliated youth are 40 percent more likely to graduate high school than their unaffiliated peers and 70 percent more likely to enroll in college.
The researchers note that teens' fellow church-goers are an important factor, serving as mentors who help teens set their sights high.
"Youth have a unique chance to form relationships with peers and mentors outside of their classroom at school or their neighborhood at home," said Lance Erickson, the lead study author and a sociologist at BYU. "Mentors especially care for, counsel with and encourage youth throughout their growing years in a way that teachers and parents might not be able to."
Erickson and co-author James Phillips of Rice University studied data from more than 8,379 teens across the country.
Across all faiths, Erickson's new study found that measures of religious participation and spirituality are positively associated with higher educational attainment. Church attendance, for example, was especially predictive of high school graduation, while prayer was more influential for college enrollment.
Interestingly, Erickson and Phillips found mentors with a religious background have essentially the same effect as educators who mentor students.
"Having a non-parent, adult figure who provides positive behavioral encouragement and that a teenager feels comfortable approaching is huge," Phillips said. "Here we see just how far-reaching those religious mentorships are, even to the point of influencing college enrollment as effectively as mentors who are strictly from educational settings, such as teachers or coaches."