Education Gap Grows for Adolescents from Single-Parent Families

By 02/19/2015

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Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest:,  (212) 998-5478, New York University
Ashley Inman:, (707) 332-1184, Education Next Communications Office

Education Gap Grows for Adolescents from Single-Parent Families

Young people raised in one-parent homes complete fewer years of schooling and are less likely to receive a B. A. degree

The percentage of children living in single-parent families in the United States has increased markedly over the past 50 years. Now new research published in Education Next shows that by the age of 24, individuals who lived in single-parent families as adolescents have received fewer years of schooling and are less likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than those from two-parent families. Using data from the U. S. Department of Labor’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), researchers provide, for the first time, an estimate of the relationship between adolescents’ family situations and their future educational attainment, and find that the education gap between young adults who lived in single-parent families and those who lived in two-parent families between ages 14 and 16 widened substantially between 1968 and 2009.

The authors, Kathleen Ziol-Guest (New York University), Greg Duncan (University of California, Irvine), and Ariel Kalil (University of Chicago), used the PSID, which tracked the educational and economic life cycle of nationally representative samples of families and their children between 1968 and 2009. They find that during the 11-year period beginning in 1988, 24-year-olds who had been raised in single-parent families had, on average, two-thirds of a year less schooling than those who had lived in two-parent families. But for those who reached age 24 by 2009, who had lived in single-parent households, the gap had increased to nearly one and one-third years, an increase of nearly half a year of schooling.

The data also reveal an increase in the attainment gap, or the difference in likelihood that a young person will graduate from college by age 24. During the 1980s, the likelihood of graduating from college was 8 percentage points less among those who had lived in single-parent families than their peers with two-parent families. In the 11-year period ending in 2009, that gap more than doubled to 17 percentage points.

A likely explanation for the educational attainment gap is the sharp difference in family income between the two types of families. The authors note that in 1965, the year Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” 51 percent of low-income children entering adolescence were living in single-parent families. This figure jumped to 75 percent over the next three decades. The corresponding increase for adolescents in high-income families over that period is much smaller, from 3 percent to 6 percent. If the single-parent family structure adversely affects children’s educational outcomes, then the difference in trends across income groups could possibly account for the growing gap in educational attainment for these two types of families.

To see whether all of the differences between the two types of families could be attributed to differences in income, the researchers estimate impacts of family structure on educational attainment with and without considering differences in parental income.

When they adjusted for family income, the scholars did indeed find that differences in income account for about half of the education disadvantage facing students raised in single-parent families. But even after adjusting for income, they found that single parenthood still had a much larger connection to educational attainment in the most recent period than during the 1980s.

Other factors affecting educational attainment rates include the age of the mother, mother’s education, and family size (the number of siblings). The educational attainment of the mother remains the single most important factor associated with the number of years a child remains in school. In the period ending in 2009, family size did not appear as a significant factor, while the age of the mother became increasingly important. But the association of single parenthood with educational attainment is now as large as the age of the mother.

All of these factors are interconnected, the authors point out, making it difficult to isolate the independent, causal importance of any one. The observed changes over time suggest that it is more important in the 21st century to be raised in a two-parent household than it was at the time the Moynihan Report was prepared.

The Moynihan Report focused on black families, but the rise in single-parent families transcends racial and ethnic boundaries. Data from the Current Population Survey show that between 1960 and 2013, the proportion of black children living with a single parent more than doubled (from 22 percent to 55 percent); among white children, the percentage more than tripled (from 7 percent to 22 percent).

“We would think differently about the nature of disadvantages imparted by single-parent family structure,” the authors say, “if all of the association between living in a single-parent family and completed schooling could be accounted for by lower family income.” But, they conclude, “income inequality is hardly the only factor that may be widening the gaps.”

Read “One-Parent Students Leave School Earlier: Educational attainment gap widens,” available online now at, and in print in the Spring 2015 issue of Education Next.

About the Authors

Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest is research associate professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Greg J. Duncan is professor of education at the University of California, Irvine. Ariel Kalil is professor at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit:

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