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 

The Key to College Success


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


The news media and the political class uphold higher education as the ticket that delivers the American Dream, yet rarely are they willing to identify the ticket that may be most responsible for students’ actually earning that coveted degree. Two studies that crunch data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), however, make it clear that having married parents is key to both attending and finishing college.

The findings of the first study, by Molly A. Martin of Penn State, are sure to confound the growing number of “Murphy Browns,” even among some political conservatives, who think they can raise successful children without a husband. Looking at all five waves of data of the NELS (1988 through 2002), which tracked children from the eighth grade until most were 26, Martin found that the ability of parents to transmit high socioeconomic status to their children—particularly educational success—is highly dependent upon family structure.

Even as the single mothers in the NELS sample had higher average levels of education than married parents, their children scored significantly less than children living with their biological mother and father in all three measures of academic achievement in the eighth grade: GPA, scores on a standardized math test, and math or science class placement. These same children were also less likely to finish high school, attend college, and earn a college degree. And by age 21, these children had completed fewer average years of schooling. The effects of family structure were statistically significant in all seven educational variables in the baseline statistical model and in all but one measure in a second model that controlled for the effects of parents’ education. In essence, having a single mother, even one who is highly educated, yielded lower returns across the child’s educational career than having married biological parents.

The second study, by Roger A. Wojtkiewicz and Melissa Holtzman of Ball State University, yielded similar results. Analyzing data from three waves of the NELS (1998, 1992, and 2000), these researchers found that “children living in stepparent homes not only fare worse than children living in two-biological-parent homes, but they also fare as badly as, or worse than, children living with single parents.”

Attempting to explain the lower college-graduation rates among children from broken homes, the Ball State sociologists measured the effects of family structure on “overall” college graduation as well as on three transitions to college graduation: high-school graduation, four-year college attendance among those who graduated from high school, and college graduation among those who attended a four-year school. In multivariate statistical models, the combination of a full range background factors, including family income and parental education, were able to explain the lower levels of overall college-graduation rates among children of single parents but not children in stepfamilies. The background factors were less able to explain the negative effects of both kinds of broken families in the three transitions measures, negative effects that appear especially pronounced in the depressed college-graduation rates among those who attended a four-year college.

These findings lead Wojtkiewicz and Holtzman to observe that even when children of broken families attend college, they “ultimately lack forms of support that are necessary to see them through to graduation,” whether those support forms are “emotional, monetary, or both.”

Given this verdict, Americans have to wonder why they are hearing no outcry over the nation’s retreat from marriage from commentators who say they want to see more young adults graduating from college.

(Molly A. Martin, “Family Structure and the Intergenerational Transmission of Educational Advantage,” forthcoming in Social Science Research, and Roger A. Wojtkiewicz and Melissa Holtzman, “Family Structure and College Graduation: Is the Stepparent Effect More Negative than the Single Parent Effect?” Sociological Spectrum 31.4 [July-August 2011]: 498–521.)

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