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 

Helping Kids Go to College Begins at Home


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


Although rarely acknowledged by the news media, the likelihood of academic success that leads to college attendance has a lot to do with a child’s family background. A study by a team of American sociologists confirms this reality, establishing that family factors, not individual factors, explain about 60 percent of the variation of years of completed schooling of children. While acknowledging the role of birth order, number of siblings, parents’ age, and parents’ educational level as important components of those family factors, this study focuses on the impact of family-living arrangements on children’s college attendance and on their parental support they receive for higher education. This study devoted particular attention to family-living arrangements that deviate from the norm of married parents living with their biological children.

Under the direction of John C. Henretta of the University of Florida, the study analyzed data representing 1,519 family households from the 2001 Human Capital Expenditure Mail Study, a supplement to the 2000 wave of the Health and Retirement Study. These data represented parental post-secondary educational expenses for the 5,070 children of respondents, of whom nearly 3,000 had attended college. Data on college costs also came from the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System Institutional Characteristics Study conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics.

It may seem obvious that differences in the structures of families children live in at age 18 will translate into “important differences” in those children’s likelihood of college enrollment. But those differences should nonetheless deliver a wake-up call to parents who are considering divorce or remarriage. As the researchers summarize:

The probability of [college attendance] is very sensitive to parental configuration and the predicted effects are large. Children with two biological parents are more likely to attend college and receive more support than those with a stepparent or no parent. Children with a stepparent are both less likely to attend and receive substantially less support than those with biological parents, and those with a stepmother receive substantially less than those with a stepfather.

Having no father (i.e., a mother-only household) reduces support much more than having no mother (a father-only household). In contrast, the probability of attendance for those with no father is higher than for those with no mother. Put in another way, single mothers are more likely to promote college attendance among their children compared to single fathers but they provide a substantially lower level of financial support for that college attendance.

The study adds nuance to other analyses that find that all children in a stepfamily experience disadvantages on the college front. As blended families may include biological children born to both parents as well as stepchildren born earlier to one parent, the data here establish that the stepchildren, not the biological children living in the same household, suffer the most disadvantages.

Now, if only Congress and the White House would take these findings to heart and focus on strategies for increasing college enrollment not by saddling young people with heavy student debt but rather by reversing family breakdown.

(John C. Henretta et al., “Family Structure and the Reproduction of Inequality: Parents’ Contribution to Children’s College Costs,” Social Science Research 8.1 [July 2012]: 63–78.)

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