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 

Children Achieving Less

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Researchers have long understood that parental divorce tends to lead to lower educational attainment for children. Now, a group of scholars seek to understand exactly how this trend occurs. In spite of the broad knowledge about children and divorce, “little is known about the relative explanatory power of children’s skills, both in comparison to one another and with respect to key explanatory factors such as family income and instability.” In other words, precisely how do certain factors mediate the effect of parental divorce upon children’s educational outcomes? And how do such results differ for white versus nonwhite children, whose experiences vary widely?

For the purposes of their study, the researchers identify four such “mediators”: family income, family instability, children’s psychosocial skills, and children’s cognitive skills. The study uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and couples this with a separate survey of children of NLSY women, called the NLSCM. The researchers ended up with a sample of 8,319 children of 3,940 mothers. They then identified children who experienced parental divorce before the age of 17, and restricted the sample further to those children who were 18 years old or older by 2012. About one-third of the final sample had experienced a parental divorce as children, with 7 being the average age at which such a divorce occurred. 

The researchers then ran a series of equations to evaluate their data, and find what effect the mediating factors had on the final outcome of educational attainment. (Interestingly, along the way, they higlihgted a number of “predictors” of divorce. Their results demonstrate that among other factors, “mothers who themselves were raised in large families with fathers present during childhood are less likely to divorce.”)

The final results are sobering. “We observe,” the researchers report, “a 4-percent-lower probability of children’s high school completion, a 7-percent-lower probability of college attendance, and a 7-percent-lower probability of college completion.” They compared the effects for white versus nonwhite children, and found “no significant effects for nonwhite children, with point estimates being near zero.” Furthermore, the effects are somewhat smaller for children whose parents divorced during adolescence, versus those whose parents divorced during younger childhood.

The researchers find support for their theory that their mediators are, in fact, significant. “The medicating influence of family income,” they find, “is high for all levels of educational attainment (accounting for about 30 to 40 percent of the total effect) but particularly high for college completion among adolescents whose parents divorced (accounting for 67 percent of the effect).” Family instability explains between 20 and 40 percent of divorce’s effect on children’s educational attainment, particularly when the divorce occurs in early childhood. Divorce-caused changes in children’s psychosocial skills account for more than 20 percent of the gap in educational achievement when divorce occurs in early childhood, including 25 percent of the explanation upon college completion. When divorce occurs during the children’s adolescence, changes in psychosocial skills account for 15 percent of the effect on college completion. The researchers find no mediating effect of divorce on children’s cognitive abilities. They further explain, “Among nonwhite children, parental divorce is one of many disadvantaged events faced in childhood, rendering the effect of any particular adverse event less adversely disruptive.”

The researchers close with two policy recommendations. First, they recommend more efforts at promoting the education of children of divorce. And second, they caution that programs that aim at strengthening the marriages of nonwhite persons “oversimplify the range of adversities these children face that limit their education attainment and overlook the possible benefits to their parents separating.”

Given the other negative ramifications of divorce for children (including health and emotional well-being), such recommendations for nonwhite children seem to miss out on a great deal. Nonetheless, what should certainly be evident from this study is that for children, parental divorce is a huge blow to educational success.

(Jennie E. Brand, Ravaris Moore, Xi Song, Yu Xie, “Why Does Parental Divorce Lower Children’s Educational Attainment? A Causal Mediation Analysis,” Sociological Science 6 [April 2019]: 264-92.)