The Best College-Aid Program

The rising cost of a college education, coupled with the federal government’s eagerness to expand levels of student loans allegedly to make higher education more affordable, means that the average senior graduates with not only a degree but also a debt note of $20,000. These numbers get a lot of press, but almost no attention has been directed to a major cause of student debt: having divorced or remarried parents. According to a study by sociologists at Rice University, collegians whose parents are not married to each other face significantly heavier financial burdens for the simple reason that married parents, relative to other parents, contribute significantly more to their children’s college education.

Looking at data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, Ruth N. López Turley and Matthew Demond compared the financial contribution of parents by marital status to their children’s education using a sample of 2,400 undergraduates during the 1995–96 academic year. These older data were mined because they were the most recent data that included parental interviews reporting their financial contributions toward their children’s education. In every measure–and in descriptive analyses as well as in multivariate regressions that controlled for factors that might explain the parental marital-status difference–the researchers found that marital status was the most significant and consistent determinant of the amount of money parents contribute toward their children’s college expenses in a wide range of measures.

Married parents not only contributed more in absolute terms to their children’s education than divorced parents ($4,700 median amount per year vs. $1,500 per year; p<.001) but also gave a larger proportion of their income to their children’s education (8 percent vs. 6 percent, p<.05). Married parents also outscored remarried parents in absolute ($4,700 per year vs. $2,490; p<.001) and proportional terms (8 percent of income vs. 5 percent; p<.001). Moreover, married parents covered a significantly greater proportion of their children’s financial needs, as defined by the cost of the college in which they are enrolled minus aid. Even as children of divorced and remarried parents were found to have significantly lower levels of financial need, married parents nonetheless covered 77 percent of the financial need of their children, whereas divorced parents covered just 42 percent of the financial need of their children (p<.001) and remarried parents 53 percent (p<.05).

These differences remained statistically significant when controlled individually for parental income and educational levels. Even living in a state that requires child support to extend through the college years did not increase the amount of money that divorced or remarried parents contributed to their children’s education. Also, in their most sophisticated statistical models, using ordinary least-square regressions to predict parental contributions, the researchers found that parental marital status trumped parental education and income as the determining factor. They note, for example, “divorced and married parents who make $70,000 a year are predicted to contribute less toward their children’s college expenses than married parents who make only $40,000 per year.” Likewise, “the contributions of divorced and remarried parents with graduate degrees are predicted to be similar to those of married parents with only a high school diploma or less.”

Turley and Demond concede that their findings are “troubling for college-bound students with divorced, separated, or remarried parents.” Yet these findings should also trouble lawmakers to the point that they are willing to repeal easy divorce laws so that more children can go to college without carrying the financial baggage of parents who aren’t willing to get along.

(Ruth N. López Turley and Matthew Demond, “Contributions to College Costs by Married, Divorced, and Remarried Parents,” forthcoming in Journal of Family Issues.)