Study: Fewer Children of Divorce Get Degrees

Research considers impact of divorce on professional degree achievement

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June 14, 2018

The children of divorced parents acquire fewer undergraduate and professional degrees, even after controlling for a variety of factors, according to a new study.

The study, recently published by the Journal of Family Studies, addresses the intersection of two increasingly important phenomena: high rates of divorce and the increasing need for today's young people to acquire post-secondary and post-baccalaureate degrees.

Divorce is conspicuously prevalent in American culture. About 45 percent of marriages end in divorce in America; Scientific American estimated that 1.5 million children experience the divorce of their parents every year. An overview of research on divorce finds that "children living with their married, biological parents consistently have better physical, emotional, and academic well-being."

Much of this research however has focused primarily on the impact on young children. This, the study argues, misses how America's economy has shifted away from manufacturing, leading both men and women to find themselves in need of a higher degree of education to keep up in the services economy.

There is a dearth of research on the impact of divorce on achievement of masters and professional degrees, which is why they are the primary focus of the new study. This lack of research is significant, as the number of individuals enrolled in masters and professional degrees rose 78 percent between 1985 and 2010, with the majority of that increase happening between 2008 and 2010.

To examine the relationship between divorce and higher-ed. achievement, the study's authors used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), a study administered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that has tracked a cohort of Americans since they were teenagers in 1997. Using the NLSY data, the study's authors found that 26.9 percent of children of divorce achieved at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 49.6 percent of children of continuously married parents. 12.2 percent of children of divorce were ever or currently enrolled in a graduate/professional degree program, compared to 19.6 percent of the children of the continuously married.

The study then considers the impact of divorce on post-secondary education after controlling for a number of relevant variables, namely the "gender and race of the youth and parents' education and income." Even with these controls, the odds that the child of divorced parents obtained at least a bachelor's degree were 44 percent lower than the children of an intact marriage, and 20 percent lower for having enrolled in a program for or obtained a professional degree.

One factor that might explain the disparity between continuously married and divorced parents is that continuously married parents have higher educational expectations for their children, at least according to the NLSY survey of parents. The study found that there was a high correlation between a parent's expectation of education and whether or not his or her child obtained a post-baccalaureate degree.

However, it also found that there was a strong similarity between the expectations of divorced and separated parents, in turn suggesting that the mere expectation of higher educational achievement does not explain why the children of divorce do worse.

Having controlled for expectations and a number of measures of human capital, the authors conclude that "an examination of our bivariate and multivariate results provides strong support for our first hypothesis that young adults with divorced parents have lower postbaccalaurate [sic] educational attainment than young adults with continuously married parents … the disparity was greater at the bachelor's degree level than that of a postbaccalaureate degree."

The study's results contribute to a voluminous literature on the negative effects of divorce on educational outcomes.

Children of divorced parents have lower math and reading scores, lower GPAs, and engage less in school. They also engage in fewer extracurricular activities and are less likely to complete high school as compared against their peers with married parents. Assuming they do graduate, children of divorce do worse on measures of college success, "even if the parent's relationship ended many years prior."

At the same time, it makes the important point that the impact of divorce cannot necessarily be reduced to measures of wealth or social capital (where social capital is proxied by educational expectations).

"More work is needed to theorize and model explanations beyond human and social capital for understanding postbaccalaureate success," the authors note.