It’s a classic set-up to a joke – a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…. But according to a recent Pew Research Center study, in the United States it’s more likely that a Hindu, a Jew and a Muslim all walk into a university lecture hall.

Jokes aside, the study on Religion and Education Around the World claims religious minorities in the United States are much more likely to have college degrees than their Christian counterparts. The finding is surprising given that, on a global scale, many of these same minorities struggle with educational attainment the most.

A different story around the world

While members of minority religions seem to shine in the U.S., their prospects are bleaker around the globe. Many receive no formal education at all. Forty-one percent of Hindus and 36 percent of Muslims have not gone to school.

Christians, Buddhists and those unaffiliated with religion tend to be better off, with more than 50 percent having at least secondary schooling.

Jews belong to the most educated religion globally, with an average of more than 13 years of schooling among those ages 25 and older.

These discrepancies can be explained by the economic status of different locations around the world. Outside of the United States, Hindu and Muslim populations are heavily concentrated in developing countries.

Ninety-eight percent of adults who identify as Hindu live in India, Nepal or Bangladesh.  There are large Muslim populations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. These countries have high poverty rates, and it is often difficult for families to provide all of the assets needed for children to get an education.

It is worth noting that Muslims living in Europe tend to obtain a higher level of education than Muslims in the Middle East.

Jews, on the other hand, are mostly concentrated in the United States and Israel. Both countries have strong economies, which means parents often have the means to help their kids attain higher levels of education.


Higher achievement in the United States

Nearly all Hindus (96 percent) and the majority of Muslims (54 percent) above the age of 25 in the United States have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s more than the Christian majority, which comes in at 36 percent – 3 percentage points below the national average.

The discrepancies between the U.S. and global averages may be due to the minority status of Hindus and Muslims in the United States. Pew’s report found that religious minorities often attain higher education levels on average than a country’s majority religious group, particularly when the minority group is largely foreign-born and comes from a distant place.

Eighty-seven percent of Hindus and 64 percent of Muslims currently living in the United States were not born here, compared to only 14 percent of Christians inside the United States.

In addition, immigration policies in the United States tend to favor highly-skilled applicants. As demonstrated in the chart below, more than half of the visas given to highly skilled workers are from India, where 90 percent of the world’s Hindus live.

Research has also shown that Asian Americans – including people from India, a majority Hindu and Muslim country – are among the wealthiest and most educated immigrants in the United States.

There is also a strong correlation between the educations of parents with the academic attainment of their children. These parents not only value education, but also have the resources to enroll their children in better schools, tutoring and extra classes.

Hindus and Muslims around the world catching up

Although the United States is one of the most educated countries in the world, Muslims and Hindus are making the largest gains in education worldwide.

Over three generations, the portion of Hindus with some schooling has increased from 43 percent to 71 percent. Muslims with at least some schooling has increased from 46 percent to 72 percent during the same period.

These gains also reflect the declining gender gap in education across all religions.

Perhaps the next generation’s joke will feature two Hindu and Muslim professors walking into a nail salon.