The value and meaning of a college education in the United States has perhaps never been more contentious than it is today. Media and political attention highlight rising tuition rates, soaring student debt, and an anemic entry-level job market for recent college graduates. Fewer than 60 percent of students who begin post-secondary education earn a Bachelor’s degree within six years. At the same time, scholars and activists have argued that increased access to college education and improved retention to graduation may be the most effective pair of strategies available to increase social mobility and ameliorate economic inequality while expanding economic growth.
Numerous factors contribute to students’ barriers to college entry and completion, but one that has received relatively little attention is the experience of family instability in childhood and adolescence. Family instability describes repeated changes in children’s family composition and family organization. In current demographic research, family instability usually pertains to changes in a coresident parent’s entry into or exit from a marriage or cohabiting union, but the concept can be extended to include changes in coresidence with grandparents, step- or half-siblings, or other kin. In a cohort of children born in the United States in 2001, about 10 percent of children had experienced two or more changes in their mother’s union status by the start of kindergarten (5 years), and nearly 10 percent of U.S. adolescents interviewed in the mid-1990s had experienced three or more such changes.
A growing body of demographic research in the United States and Great Britain has documented that above and beyond the family structure in which a child lives at any point in time, the experience of family instability has independent associations with a range of outcomes across childhood, including behavior problems and poorer academic achievement across the early life course. In a paper published in Population Research and Policy Review in August 2013, I reported that family structure change (measured as repeated changes in mother’s union status) was also consequential for young adults’ entry into college and eventual completion of a Bachelor’s degree. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the study showed that adolescents who had experienced changes in their mother’s union status in early childhood were about 27 percent less likely to enroll in college and, if enrolled, were about 25 percent less likely to graduate by age 24 compared to young adults who experienced no family structure change. The effects were similar but somewhat smaller for youth who experienced family structure changes between school entry and age 14.
The reasons that family instability was associated with college experience differed depending on when the family transitions occurred. Young adults who experienced family structure transitions before school entry had lower grade point averages in high school, began to have sex earlier, and were more likely to have children while still in their teens. Taking these factors into account, however, early family instability still remained associated with lower odds of college enrollment. In other work, my co-author and I reported that young adults experiencing earlier instability were more likely to be diverted out of college entirely and to begin union and formation earlier than their peers who experienced no transitions or later transitions only.
Why might events occurring in early childhood, before children have even begun school, have consequences that endure to late adolescence? The students in this study were observed for the first time when they were at least 14 years old, and although their family structure histories are known, there is not much available pertaining to the context of those early family structure changes. There is also only limited information on their parents’ attributes before they were born. One possible explanation is selection: parents who change their union status early may have unobserved attributes like poor communication skills that make it difficult to remain in relationships and that also may be passed on to children. To the extent that these characteristics reduce students’ chances of starting or finishing college, early family instability and children’s college attendance may be related only spuriously. A second explanation draws from recent findings in developmental psychology and neuroscience regarding the association between stress in early childhood and compromised later verbal ability and self-regulation. Such a perspective might explain why transitions that occur during key developmental stages appear to be more strongly associated with long-term learning outcomes than even more recent transitions.
For young adults who experienced family instability at later ages, the association is explained by the greater likelihood of residing with a single parent or stepparent in adolescence compared to children who experienced no later family instability. Prior work has shown that youth residing outside of two-parent families have less perceived financial support for college, suggesting that resources, rather than the developmental or social consequences of family structure change, may be most salient in adolescents’ decisions about college when they have experienced later family instability.
Although family instability is a significant aspect of how family structure influences child outcomes, its influence must be contextualized. That is, recognizing the role of family instability in shaping children’s college experience requires also recognizing the conditions that give rise to it. Weak economic and educational opportunities are associated with high rates of early union formation, union dissolution, and union turnover. The structural factors that exacerbated and complicated early parenthood a generation ago are the same factors that make upward social mobility through college completion a critical strategy to improve individual outcomes and reduce economic inequality today.
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