How family structure impacts college attendance

Nicole M. King
23 January 2014
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - White House seeks ways to get poor kids through college

President Obama has made college attendance for the low-income a top concern in his administration, and an NPR story this week covers the ways that American colleges and universities are trying to recruit such students - and keep them until graduation.

Bryn Mawr is one college that has come up with creative recruitment methods. Every year, the school actively searches for 10 low-income students from Boston, and provides them with financial aid. Other schools are following suit, but the "dirty little secret" of American higher education, says Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, "is that universities care about racial diversity and do a good job of trying to promote that, but they completely ignore the issue of socioeconomic diversity." One reason, of course, is that economic diversity is a much more expensive proposition for a college: that financial aid has to come from somewhere. Scholars also cite high application fees and lack of parental guidance as reasons that low-income students do not apply to college.

But research demonstrates that no matter how hard colleges seek to enrol low-income students, their efforts will likely be only a drop in the bucket, as family structure is a crucial and completely ignored factor in the likelihood that any particular student will attend college.

The New Research - Paying for college - when do parents help most?

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."

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.

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."

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.