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Children from divorced families only half as likely to go to a top college, Cornell research shows

Children who do not consistently live with two biological parents are only half as likely to ever attend a selective college, even after researchers take into account factors such as income and parent education, according to a new Cornell University study.

"The results suggest that students not living with two biological parents are educationally disadvantaged in a variety of ways," the researchers said. "We have known for some time that these students receive less education, but now we see they are less likely to attend a selective college as well. If this quality difference is reflected in later life income and other benefits, as other studies suggest, then these children will be disadvantaged in other life outcomes as well."

Dean Lillard, Cornell assistant professor of consumer economics and housing, reported the findings at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in New Orleans on May 9. "Not only are these students far less likely to apply, be admitted and to attend college, but even given that they apply to college, they are substantially less likely to apply and attend a selective college," he said.

Lillard, with Jennifer Gerner, Cornell professor of consumer economics and housing, analyzed The High School and Beyond longitudinal survey of almost 12,000 high school seniors and almost 15,000 high school sophomores initially interviewed in 1980 and re-interviewed in 1982, 1986 and 1992.

After controlling for parents' income, employment and education, student's grade point average, SAT scores, participation in sports and other extra-curricular activities, and identifying the top 50 colleges in the nation, the consumer economists found striking differences between the two sets of students. They reported on these in their paper, "Family Composition and College Choice: Does it Take Two Parents to Go to the Ivy League?"

"Divorce turns out to be a marker for a whole array of factors that have a negative impact on later life outcomes," Gerner said.

She pursued this research after she noted that only 10 percent of the students in a large class at Cornell were from divorced households. She later discovered this same proportion among the entire undergraduate student body at Cornell, compared with the national average of almost 50 percent. When only students who go to college are considered, 38 to 40 percent are from divorced families, compared with the 10 percent at Cornell.

"Our analysis shows that it is not living without two biological parents itself that has this negative effect. Rather, it is the family disruption that influences a whole constellation of factors that are considered when students apply to college," said Gerner, who teaches a course on the economics of family policy pertaining to children. Gerner also is assistant dean for undergraduate and graduate students in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

Students from divorced households, whether living with a step-parent or not, are generally less likely to score as well as students from intact families on grades, standardized tests, school activities and the other factors Lillard and Gerner considered.

In a related study, also conducted by Gerner and reported on at the PAA meeting by co-author Shelly Verploeg, the consumer economists compared how elementary and middle school children who experienced any kind of family disruption (parent separation, divorce, birth of a sibling, family move, grandparent moving out) fared on standardized tests compared with children who did not experience any significant disruption in their family life.

"We found that all these disruptions had significant negative impacts on children's scores. This is consistent with the notion that stability in a child's living arrangement matters," Gerner said. "Divorce is obviously a major family disruption and we're finding that it consistently and systematically negatively affects a wide range of significant factors."

In the United States, about 40 percent of white children and 75 percent of black children can expect to live with only one parent or no parents by the time they turn 17. Although other studies have looked at family composition and its relationship to performance on tests, years of schooling and whether or not the child will drop out of school, this study is one of the first to look at family composition and the type of college a student is likely to attend.

Specifically, the researchers found that, after controlling for factors such as income and parent education, 28 percent of students living with two biological parents were likely to apply to a selective college, compared with 17 percent of students not living with two parents; 25 percent were likely to get in, compared with 14 percent of those living with one parent; and 2.2 percent of two-parent students were likely to ever attend a selective college, compared with only 1.1 percent of one-parent students.

Next, the Cornell consumer economists want to explore the implications of these findings for tomorrow's policy leaders.

"Students at the most selective colleges are most likely to become policy leaders, making vital decisions concerning welfare and other benefits for single-parent families. Yet these students are, much more than others, isolated from such families. How can they make informed decisions if they are so unfamiliar with the all-too-common disputed family?" Gerner asked.