Students Of Divorced Parents Contribute More To Education Costs: Q&A With Head Researcher

Children with divorced parents shoulder twice the financial burden for their own college costs than those from intact homes, because their parents contribute less than married parents.

That's the word from a recent study conducted by Ruth N. López Turley, associate professor of sociology at Rice University, and Matthew Desmond, a junior fellow at Harvard University, called, "Contributions to College Costs by Married, Divorced, and Remarried Parents."

Using data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, Lopez and Desmond found that children from married homes had to cover 23 percent of their own college expenses, while those from divorced homes had to pay 58 percent. Even remarried parents contribute less--despite the fact that their parents had new spouses had, these students had to pay for 47 percent of their education.

These findings support the idea that divorce presents a major roadblock to kids' education. We asked Ruth N. López Turley to shed some light on the study and its implications.

What is the most important thing this study tells us?

The most important, or the most surprising thing to me was [about] the remarried parents. We were expecting to find a difference between married and divorced parents. You expected them [the remarried parents] to look like the married parents but they looked more like the divorced parents in terms of their financial contributions [to college costs].

Why do you think this is?

Right now I'm speculating--I think its because the remarried families are more complicated. There are kids involved, and step-parents feel less of an obligations towards step-kids.

Why look at this aspect of finances?

There are lots of previous studies out there that look at the effects of divorce. There's plenty of evidence to suggest there are economic consequences. We wanted to see one of the mechanisms by which these economic consequences affect the outcomes, so we looked at direct parental contributions.

Were you building on any other studies that covered similar territory?

There are definitely other studies that look at the consequences of divorce, but usually they don't cover this particular area. [Past studies] found that students of divorced parents needed a little bit less and that they tend to go to institutions whose costs are a little lower--so probably less prestigious institutions--but we didn't look at that directly.

You address the fact that college students are more economically advantaged to begin with; did you look at students across a wide swath of economic backgrounds, and if so, do your findings apply to them, or just to the more economically advantaged?

My findings apply only to those who are already in college. They are more advantaged than students who didn't make it to college. But it is a national sample that covers a broad range of incomes and financial backgrounds. Overwhelmingly those who make it to college have married parents. It may be that children of divorced parents may be less likely to go to college in the first place.

Why don't you take into account the non-custodial parents' contribution--like step-parents who foot their step-kids' bills for college? Happens more often than you think.

Because we don't have that information. [My data] corresponds with the way financial aid calculations are done. Institutions should focus on the bigger picture with these complicated families.

Why don't parents of divorced kids contribute as much?

A big reason is that their incomes are lower, but it's not the whole explanation. It's not just about finances. What it is beyond that I'm not totally sure. Their contributions as a proportion of their income are also lower compared to married parents.

So what can parents do to offset this?

The simplest and most straightforward answer, and I hate to put it this way, is stay married. But obviously it's not that simple. I mean, I'm not going to recommend it to everyone. There is something to staying together for the kids--it's just another consequence to take into consideration. Or be aware of this so that parents who separate take this into account. They should think very carefully about how they'll support their kid through college. It's the same for institutions--they need to take into account these more complicated family structures for kids to get what they need. Students who are more responsible for the costs are likely to work more, and students who work more are less likely to complete college.