Losing a parent to divorce affects educational ambition
by Nicole M. King | March 30, 2016
The News Story - Free community college education bill a potential “game changer” for state
A new bill proposing that Kentucky cover the costs of community and technical college education for qualified students has just passed through committee in the state legislature.
The Work Ready Kentucky Program “can be a game changer for a lot of families,” according to Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College President Phillip Neal. "This opens the door to higher education to people across the state who for financial reasons can't access college.” The bill now faces difficult hurdles on its road to law—most particularly Kentucky’s already severe budget difficulties.
But while free community college may sound like a perfect solution for workplace shortages, for example—the problem that Kentucky lawmakers cite as incentive for the bill—it will go only so far in encouraging students to graduate. Research reveals that far more powerful factors may be at play in students’ decisions whether to attend college.
The New Research - Losing Dad, losing ambition
Sociologists have known for some time that children of divorced parents fall short in their educational attainments, when compared to peers from intact families. A prime reason for this deficiency comes to light in a study recently completed at the University of Oslo in Norway: children who lose a parent (usually their father) through divorce also often lose their educational ambition.
In beginning their inquiry into how parental divorce affects educational ambitions, the Oslo scholars fully anticipate that family breakup might cool young people’s ardor for pursuing a college degree. After all, they remark, “A family composed of two biological parents is considered to have an optimal family environment for children.” Elaborating, the researchers stress that “each of the biological parents is an important resource of emotional support, practical assistance, information and guidance.” But when parents part through divorce, children lose some of these critical resources. Typically, such parental divorce “deprives children . . . of the opportunity to get a male role model, because usually the father leaves the household.” The father’s absence, the researchers explain, “strongly contributes to the change in parent practices and family involvement in children’s educational activities” experienced after the divorce.
But in this new study, the researchers focus not on how parental divorce affects educational attainment but rather on how it affects educational ambition. To gauge the impact of parental divorce on educational ambition, the researchers pore over data collected from two samples of 18- and-19-year-old Norwegian adolescents, the first (from a prospective study) comprising 1,861 young men and women and the second (from a cross-sectional study) comprising 2,391.
The data from both samples provide clear evidence that parental divorce dampens educational drive. Among the young people surveyed in the prospective study, those who had experienced a late parental divorce were almost twice as likely as peers from intact families to drop plans for college or university education, becoming “undecided” as to their educational future (Odds Ratio of 1.8). The statistical linkage between parental divorce and diminished educational ambitions likewise shows up in the cross-sectional data, which establish that “adolescents who experienced parental divorce during childhood or adolescence were more likely to have undecided educational ambition, compared to their peers from continuously married parents (O[dds]R[atio] 1.3).”
“In conclusion,” the Oslo scholars write, “experience of parental divorce seems to be associated with undecided educational ambition among 18/19 year-old adolescents.”
Though their data all come from Norway, the researchers’ findings align with those of a 2007 study involving “a large sample of Canadian adolescents . . . report[ing] that adolescents from single-parent families had lower educational ambitions than those from two-parent families.” The results of this new Norwegian study also parallel those of a 2007 study finding that “non-intact family structure variables were negatively associated with the decision to continue education” among children and adolescents in Sweden and the United States.
Seeking to translate their findings into public-policy implications, the researchers reason that “mechanisms that reduce the adverse influence of parental divorce on educational ambitions need to be in place.”
Isn’t it past time to stop looking for mechanisms reducing the adverse influence of parental divorce and to start looking for reforms actually preventing parental divorce from happening in the first place? It is such reforms—legal and cultural—that will most help to ensure that young people do not give up on their educational dreams.
(Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Family in America 30.1 [Winter 2016]. Study: Henok Zeratsion et al., “The Influence of Parental Divorce on Educational Ambitions of 18/19 Year-Old Adolescents from Oslo, Norway,”Journal of Child and Family Studies 24.10 : 2,865-73.)