An Unequal Burden

December 10, 2010

Students from families with divorced or remarried parents pay twice the share of their college education as compared to their peers whose parents remain married to each other, according to recent research published online by the Journal of Family Issues.

“Divorced or separated parents contributed significantly less than married parents -- in absolute dollars, as a proportion of their income, and as a proportion of their children’s financial need,” Ruth N. López Turley, associate professor of sociology at Rice University, and Matthew Desmond, a junior fellow at Harvard University, say in their article, “Contributions to College Costs by Married, Divorced, and Remarried Parents.”

The proportional burden borne by students from different family types was especially telling, based on Turley’s and Desmond’s analysis of a subsample of 2,400 dependent undergraduate students from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study of 1995-6, along with a supplementary interview of parents. The researchers found that children whose parents were married to each other covered about 23 percent of their own college expenses, while children whose parents remarried had to pay for 47 percent of those expenses themselves. Those whose parents divorced and did not remarry were left to come up with 58 percent of the cost. “These findings are troubling for college bound students with divorced, separated, or remarried parents,” the authors say.

Turley said this disparate burden carries serious implications for the college success of students from divorced and remarried families. "A lot of these students are having to either get into a lot of debt or work more while they are in college, and both of those things are associated with a lower likelihood of completing college," she said in a telephone interview. "You can just see the way this story continues."

While the research reinforces much of what is known about the economic and educational effects of divorce, it also seizes on a key aspect by which those two effects intersect with and reinforce each other. "What my research does is help to explain one mechanism by which divorce can be detrimental to kids," Turley said. It also shows how parents who are remarried differ from those who are not, when it comes to financially supporting their children's education.

Other researchers also have studied the effects of divorce on educational attainment, much of it through the prism of what is known as the economic deprivation thesis, which posits that children from divorced homes fare worse educationally than children from married ones, due mainly to the financial disadvantage created by divorce. Turley's and Desmond's research suggests that issues of relative wealth are only part of the story.

The disparities in parental contribution were seen across income and education levels. The sociologists' statistical models predicted that divorced or remarried parents earning $70,000 annually would be expected to contribute less toward their children’s expenses than married parents making $40,000. Similarly, divorced or remarried parents who hold graduate degrees would be predicted to contribute about the same share of their income as married parents with a high school diploma or less, the authors say.

To differentiate divorced, remarried, and married families, Turley and Desmond matched the survey responses of students who indicated that their parents were not married to each other with those whose parents said they were currently married. The data yielded the surprising result that remarried parents behave more like divorced (but not remarried) ones when it comes to paying for their children's education -- both as a share of the money they earn, and as a percentage paid of the overall need.

"We expected the remarried parents to make smaller contributions, but we didn’t expect the difference to be that big," said Turley. Though she said the reasons for the discrepancy were beyond the scope of her research, she theorized that the larger number of children in blended families may disperse the money available, and that step-parents may not feel the same obligation to support their spouses' children from previous marriages.

Even more surprising were their findings on the effects of 19 states' postmajority laws, which allow courts to extend child support past the age of 18 or order a divorced spouse to pay child support for college costs. Turley and Desmond discovered that remarried parents in postmajority states paid slightly more than their peers in states that did not have such laws. Divorced or separated parents in postmajority states, however, paid a bit less than those in other states. Turley said the results surprised her, and added that the lack of effect may be related to the ways in which the laws are carried out from state to state. "I hesitate to say that these child support laws don’t make a difference," she said.

Turley added a few caveats to their work. The data skew toward married families, with 78 percent of the college students surveyed having parents who are still married to each other (the national average is about 60 percent, according to the U.S. Census). But she said that the survey should not be seen as representative of the whole population, especially since it captured those already in college. "By definition they are more advantaged than the rest of the population," she said. "That advantage includes family structure." The authors also noted that the study they used did not account for the financial contributions offered by non-custodial parents.

Recognition that divorce makes an impact on the resources available to pay for college does not come as a shock to financial aid officials. Five years ago, 75 colleges piloted a system that helped financial aid staff members collect information from both parents, including information from parents' new spouses, while not expecting them to pay college costs. The practice remains “pretty prevalent,” said Haley Chitty, spokesman for National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, particularly among higher cost, typically private institutions. And yet, Turley’s and Desmond’s research suggests that these costly and well-equipped institutions are the same ones that enroll high proportions of already advantaged students -- the ones whose parents remain married to each other. Not only do these students get more of their education paid for, the education they receive tends to be much more expensive: tuition and other costs can run as much as 40 percent higher for children of married couples than for those from divorced couples, the data show.

Chitty said that financial aid officers are sensitive to the fact that this kind of advantage often reaffirms itself through the college selection process, and that they look closely at family structure when crafting an aid package. “We’re always talking about underrepresented student groups,” he said, acknowledging that these groups are typically thought of as comprising minority, first-generation and low-income students. “It’s not as visible or talked about as much as some of the other ones,” he continued, and added that financial aid officers should remain mindful of these students' needs. “This is another factor that they have to adjust for.”

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