The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Paying for College—When Do Parents Help Most?

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Policymakers have devoted considerable effort to creating public programs to help young people pay for college. But given the inevitable limits of such programs, thoughtful Americans should consider a study recently completed by a team of researchers from Syracuse University and the Universities of Florida and Pennsylvania, a study compellingly documenting the considerable advantage young people from intact families enjoy when it comes time to pay for college.

Scrutinizing data collected from 5,070 children from 1,519 families, all reaching age 18 between 1968 and 2000, the researchers begin their work with a preliminary investigation of how family structure affects the likelihood that children will even attend college. Their data indicate that “the probability of attendance is very sensitive to parental configuration and the predicted effects are large. Children with two biological parents are more likely to attend college . . . than those with a stepparent or
no parent.”

The likelihood that children of single-parent mothers will attend college runs lower than it does for children from two-biological-parent homes, but the gap does not reach the threshold of statistical significance. Just the same, the researchers view their findings against the backdrop of “a number of studies [that] have found lower levels of cognitive achievement in single parent and step families compared to biological two-parent families.”

In any case, completing college requires not only cognitive achievement but also financial resources. And when it comes to such resources, children from intact two-biological-parent homes enjoy a decided advantage over children from homes of other types. Children from intact homes receive significantly more financial support in covering college expenses. And the difference in parental support in covering college costs is not trivial: the researchers calculate that “family membership accounts for about 60% of the variance in payment of college costs.”

Still, the gap in parental support varies according to type of non-intact household college students come from. “Having no father (i.e., [being from] a mother-only household) reduces support much more than having no mother (a father-only household),” the researchers explain. Compared to peers from intact two-biological-parent homes, college students from stepfamilies also receive significantly less parental support. However, the size and type of deficit in parental support depends on the type of stepfamily a student comes from: “Having a stepmother is associated with significantly lower support for both tuition and room and board, while having a stepfather reduces room and board expenditures only.”

The researchers regard their findings for stepchildren as especially remarkable, given that “the large increase in divorce and remarriage over time in the United States has produced more families that include stepparents and stepchildren as well as more blended families in which all the children do not share the same biological or step relationship to their parents.”

In interpreting their findings, the researchers note a 2011 study likewise concluding that “biological two-parent families contribute more to children’s college costs than either stepparent families or divorced parents.” The authors of that study calculate that “remarried parents . . . contributed 5% of their income [to supporting children in college] compared to 8% for biological two-parent families.”

The researchers also cite as relevant a 1991 study finding that, compared to married parents, “unmarried parents are more likely to see government, instead of the student or parent, as responsible for college funding.” The authors of this study indeed report that, compared to married parents, unmarried parents are “less able to pay and, in fact, had saved less money for their children’s college attendance.”

No doubt, policymakers will continue to tinker with interest rates on student loans. But this new study makes clear that, regardless of where those rates end up, students are likely to struggle to meet college costs if their parents have parted.

(John C. Henretta et al., “Family Structure and the Reproduction of Inequality: Parents’ Contribution to Children’s College Costs,” Social Science Research 41.4 [2012]: 876-87.)