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Divorce Has a Greater Effect on Children’s Academic Success Than the Loss of a Parent
Parental separation and divorce have long been known to have a negative impact on children’s academic achievement, but the mechanisms behind this effect remain a subject of speculation and evaluation. However, few studies of parental divorce have paid close enough attention to assumptions and methods to estimate causal mediation effects.
We use a causal framework applied to linked U.S. panel data to examine whether post-divorce family conditions and children’s skills account for the observed lower levels of educational attainment among whites and nonwhites who experienced parental divorce.
As a result of our research, we have determined three primary conclusions. First, divorce has a significant negative impact on white children’s educational attainment, especially in regard to college attendance. However, divorce does not have the same effect on the educational attainment of children of other races.
Second, the negative impact of parental divorce on white children’s school performance can be accounted for by a decline in family income by as much as one- to two-thirds. Family instability also helps explain the effect, particularly when divorce occurs in early childhood.
About a fifth of the effect can be attributed to children’s psychosocial abilities, while their cognitive abilities play only a minor role. Third, decreases in family income and stability after a divorce explain the minimal total effect on education among nonwhites, while increases in children’s psychosocial and cognitive skills explain the same phenomenon.
Key Words: Parental Divorce, Level of Education, Family Income, Psychosocial Capabilities, and Causal Mediation Analysis CHILDREN’S OUTCOMES, INCLUDING their ability to succeed in school, are negatively impacted by their parent’s separation and divorce (see McLanahan, Tach, and Schneider  for a review). Divorce lowers a child’s chances of graduating high school and going on to college.
Mechanisms explaining the negative effects of parental divorce have long been conjectured and assessed. As might be expected, sociologists have hypothesized that a drop in family income is a key mechanism in the correlation between parental divorce and children’s school performance (Thomson and McLanahan 2012; Thomson, Hanson, and McLanahan 1994). With the loss of a parent in the household, typically fathers, mothers generally have fewer economic resources.
The ability of children to get an education, especially a college education, suffers when resources are cut. Family instability (i.e., the number of transitions between remarriage, further divorce, cohabitation, and union dissolution) offers another plausible explanation. Relationship transitions occur more frequently following parental divorce, and such instability disrupts children’s lives and their schooling (Lee and McLanahan 2015; Sweeney 2010). (Lee and McLanahan 2015; Sweeney 2010).
Scholars have also looked into the role that children’s abilities, both cognitive and noncognitive, play in explaining why children of divorced parents tend to have lower educational attainment. The loss of both of these abilities has been linked in the past to problems in the home, according to some studies (e.g., Kim 2011). Yet such a view obscures the way in which such skills develop over childhood.
Although cognitive skills become relatively stable by early childhood, noncognitive skills, such as emotional and behavioral wellbeing, evolve and change throughout childhood and thus may change in response to disruptive family events (Borghans et al. 2008; Cunha and Heckman 2009; Hsin and Xie 2016; Roberts, Wood, and Caspi 2008). (Borghans et al. 2008; Cunha and Heckman 2009; Hsin and Xie 2016; Roberts, Wood, and Caspi 2008). In other words, while both abilities are crucial to students’ academic success, they develop along distinct paths (Sewell, Haller, & Portes, 1969).
(Cunha and Heckman 2009; Duncan and Magnuson 2011; Lleras 2008). It’s possible that the type of skills being formed and the stage of skill development at the time of the divorce will determine the impact of the divorce on the child’s education. However, there is a lack of information about the predictive power of children’s skills, either individually or in relation to other important predictors like family income and stability.
Despite the fact that many scholars in the field of family studies stress the significance of these mechanisms, very few studies of parental divorce have paid close attention to the assumptions and methods required to estimate causal mediation effects.
Furthermore, the effects of divorce on some children are substantial, while on others they are minimal or nonexistent. Whether or not divorce has an effect on certain groups of people is obviously a prerequisite for any attempt to explain that impact.
Divorce research consistently shows a more positive correlation between white and nonwhite children’s educational outcomes than between white and any other racial or ethnic group (Amato 2001; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994). We should pay attention to differences in mediating effects if we find that the total effects of parental divorce vary for white and nonwhite children.
Although prior research has argued for the importance of family conditions and children’s skills in explaining the impact of parental divorce on children’s education, it has not adopted a causal mediation framework to assess the strength of these explanatory mechanisms.
We use a causal framework to examine the full and moderating effects of parental divorce on children’s educational attainment, drawing on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) and the National Longitudinal Survey Child-Mother file (NLSCM). We formally define mediation effects and outline assumptions necessary to maintain causal interpretations.
We perform simulations to establish bounds on our estimates of the direct and mediating effects, and we conduct sensitivity analyses based on assumptions about unobserved confounders. Using this method, we assess the quantitative strength and robustness of several important theories regarding the effects of divorce on children.
We can draw three main conclusions from our research. We begin by reiterating what other studies have found: that white children are more vulnerable to the educational consequences of parental divorce than their nonwhite counterparts.
In fact, when we control for a wide range of potential confounders, we don’t find any evidence that divorce hurts the academic success of children of color. Second, the negative effect of divorce on white children is partially mediated by family income and family stability.
For white children, we find that psychosocial skills mediate the effect, while cognitive abilities play no role even if the divorce occurred in early childhood. A child’s psychosocial skills only account for about a tenth to a fifth of the effect, which is significantly less than the roles played by family income and family stability. Third, while we do find a decline in educational attainment for children of color, we also find that improvements in early childhood cognitive and psychosocial skills more than makeup for any losses in family income or stability.
We have collected this information from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
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