Gender gaps in college linked to divorce rates

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

The News Story - How Dad's involvement can address the gender gap in higher education

While research has told us that the prevalence of divorce in our society can account for the gender gap within higher education, a recent article in The Huffington Post sheds more light on what the exact causal relation might be. It may not just be the possibility of divorce, itself, that has such an impact on both female and male adolescents, but rather the lack of father involvement in the lives of male children.

This article states that "Father absence is at the heart of the educational challenges faced by boys and men. Boys are more likely to drop out of high school, for example, when they grow up without their dads." Additionally, a 2013 report explains that this gender gap - i.e. the increasing success of females in college along with a decrease (or, at best, a stagnation) among their male counterparts - is due to the absence of the same-sex role models for male children (i.e. fathers), along with the presence of same-sex role models for female children (i.e. mothers). Given high rates of divorce, and the typical post-divorce, single mother household, children are much more often raised in situations where boys, but not girls, lack a same sex role model.

The New Research - Rising divorce rates responsible for gender gap in college attainment

It is common knowledge that more women than men are taking classes on college campuses these days. While some have praised feminism for accomplishing this reversal, Suqin Ge and Fang Yang - researchers with Virginia Tech and the State University of New York, Albany, respectively - suggest that another trend is responsible for increasing numbers of college-educated women. Rising divorce probabilities, the researchers suggest, account more than anything else for the gender gap in college achievement.

The authors begin by highlighting the stark reality: "In 1980 57% of young men aged 25-34, compared with 46% of young women, had some college education by 34. By 1996, however, female college attainment had reached 64%, 5 percentage points higher than that of males in the same cohort." Using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) and the Current Population Survey (CPS), the researchers constructed a "life-cycle model" that depicts college choices of adults aged 25-34, taking into account such factors as the education level of parents, expected labor-force benefits, and marriage status. (The "college-educated" are defined as having more than 12 years of schooling.)

The researchers discovered that both increased levels of college-level education among parents and increased earnings among the college-educated as compared to the high-school-educated help account for increased college enrollments, but do not account for the higher rates of college attainment among women than men. When the researchers get to the models that simulate changes in the marriage market, however, the real reason behind the gender gap becomes obvious. "The increase in divorce probabilities," the researchers explain, "decreases college attainment for males. This can be explained by differences in earnings return to education by marital status." For women, however, the story is different: "The return to college is higher for divorced females than for married females. As the divorce probability increases, returns to college increase and so does college attainment." The researchers emphasize, "The comparison also indicates that increase of divorce probabilities is the main force to account for the reversal of gender gap in college attainment. Without the increase of divorce probability, female college attainment never exceeds male attainment."

Contrary to popular myth, then, we have divorce - and not feminist accomplishments - to thank for the fact that women are now gaining more college education than are men. One might speculate that as marriage crumbles, men feel less motivation to pursue higher wages to support a family, while women are faced with the bitter reality of surviving on a sole income.