The Effects of Changing Family Structures on Higher Education for Black and White American Cohorts: 1908-1969

Carter, Wendy Y.
Working paper no. 1996-22


Social scientists have been concerned with the effect of social origins on educational attainment since the early days of the discipline. One important aspect of social origins that continues to occupy the interest of researchers and the public is the family. The issue of race has also been central to this concern. Recent demographic changes in mortality and marriage behavior have had a profound impact on the increasing proportion of children who will reach age eighteen without both biological parents. This research investigates the effects of trends in family and household structures on the educational attainment for recent black and white cohorts in the United States.

We know from previous cross-sectional reports that those who grow up with both biological parents are more likely to attain higher levels of education than those who do not. The weakness of that approach was that it did not account for changes in the effects of family structure over time. This paper addresses that weakness in greater detail.

Using three national surveys, this study considers the implication of changes in the effect of different family types on rates of high school graduation, college attendance, and college graduation.

The research finds that at any given time, growing up in a non-intact family clearly has a negative effect on adult educational attainment. However, the analysis showed that the effect is somewhat more diverse than previously recognized. For the most part, at higher levels of educational attainment there were no significant differences in the effects of family structure over time. The predicted rates for college attendance and college graduation showed little variation over time. However, significant racial differences in the effects of family structure over time for two educational outcomes do exist. If the dependent variable is the number of years of schooling completed, time is a factor to be considered. For whites the comparative advantage of growing up in an intact family remains the same over time. For blacks this advantage declines with each cohort.

With respect to high school completion, the analysis reveals significant changes in the effect of family structure on rates of high school graduation for whites. In contrast, there appear to be no significant changes in the influence of family structure on high school completion for blacks.