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. The researchers are therefore hardly surprised that “adolescents living in households where one of the biological parents is not present exhibit more adjustment problems and academic difficulties than adolescents living with continuously married parents.” Nor are they surprised that a previous 2005-2006 study in Norway concluded that “adolescents living with both biological parents were more likely to complete secondary education than their counterparts living in [any] other form of family structure.”

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.

And though they focus on the effects of parental divorce, the researchers construe their conclusions against the backdrop of previous research showing that living in a “single-parent family due to divorce . . . [has] more adverse effect on children’s well-being than single-parent family due to death of a parent.” They cite, in particular, a 2000 study concluding that “children from divorced single-mother families . . . have significantly lower educational levels than children from widowed single-mother families.”

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.”

Why is it that—whether they do their work in Norway or the United States—social scientists press for palliatives rather than prevention? 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.

(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 [2015]: 2,865-73.)