Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010
Effects of Postsecondary Education on Family Well-Being
As Sara McLanahan observes, children are increasingly experiencing divergent destinies shaped by their mothers' education. Children born to well-educated women are gaining from their mothers' substantial investments of both money and time in higher education, while those born to less-educated women are not. In particular, McLanahan notes that "although their parents are more educated than they were 40 years ago, children's claims on their parents' resources are weaker." 35 In other words, increasing access to postsecondary education has not led to uniformly positive, widespread benefits for future generations. McLanahan describes several possible reasons for this failure, including flaws in the labor market and the influence of feminism and birth control policies. To that list, we would add inadequate postsecondary education policies. The relationship between college attainment and family outcomes is not straightforward, even though it is typically described that way. Although college-educated adults are, on average, better off on a wide variety of measures, college-going does not result in uniformly positive benefits for everyone—and under current policy conditions it cannot. In this section, we explain this line of reasoning and examine some relevant research evidence. In the next section, we describe how various policies and institutional practices hinder the ability of unmarried parents to access and succeed in postsecondary education.
A Conceptual Model
We begin with a conceptual framework (figure 1) showing the four primary pathways by which postsecondary education can affect family formation and stability. In assessing those effects, it is important to take account of three critical features of college-going. The first is how college participants are selected, since only those who attend can benefit.36 While college attendance has become more common over time, it is by no means universal.
Second, the important nonpecuniary benefits of postsecondary education accrue through both intra-generational and inter-generational mechanisms.37 That is to say, some of these benefits involve contemporary changes in the income and health of the college-goer, while others involve changes in the future life chances of successors (children). And the two are related—for example, if postsecondary education affects one's choice of marital partner (and we have reason to believe it does), the benefits accrue both immediately and in the future.
Third, there may be substantial heterogeneity in the effects of postsecondary education. The extent to which college access is limited or unequally distributed affects college outcomes—as participation becomes more universal and participants more heterogeneous, the more outcomes will vary. So it is possible that when college was the privileged domain of those fortunate enough to afford it, primarily white men, its benefits were more robustly positive. As more college-goers attend despite significant financial and academic constraints, the positive returns may wane.38 Indeed, there is little reason to think that all pathways opened up by college-going are positive or consistent. For example, although on average women with higher levels of education have higher rates of marriage,39 lower rates of divorce,40 and lower levels of fertility,41 not all college-educated women will experience such effects.42 Similarly, although unmarried mothers are more likely than married mothers to enter college (probably in part because they stand to reap the greatest economic returns), the experience of pursuing college without appropriate financial and emotional supports may result in unanticipated penalties for this vulnerable group. As Carol MacGregor notes, "The potential loss of income and time demands of student-life might reduce time women are able to spend with children and lead to negative behavioral outcomes." 43 At a minimum, these hypotheses deserve further exploration.
Our conceptual model (see figure 1) posits that four characteristics of individuals (their social interactions, time use, economic resources, and mental and physical health) are affected by college attendance in ways that, in turn, affect their children and family well-being. Some of these hypothesized relationships are positive, promoting healthy outcomes, while others are negative. The benefits of college attendance among unmarried parents may be especially substantial, because college-educated parents serve as role models for their children and acquire skills that both improve their parenting and help increase their household income. But attending college may reduce the amount of time parents have to spend with their children and generate economic and emotional stressors that compromise the quality of parent-child interactions.
All of these relationships are, to some extent, supported by research—though the evidence is not conclusive. Although research indicates that women with more education (and higher educational aspirations) delay childbearing and also that many unmarried mothers start college after having a child in an effort to improve their lives, evidence on how postsecondary education affects family well-being more broadly conceived is scarce. Moreover, it is not clear how parenting while in college influences other child outcomes.44 Investigating those pathways is therefore an essential next task for researchers.
Attending college helps students form social networks, which are thought to result in a variety of benefits, including economic returns. But the social networks have other, nonmonetary, benefits as well. In particular, as a group of researchers recently noted, attending college can give students increased opportunities for selecting romantic partners.45 Although the research in question was generally referring to students in elite universities, less prestigious settings—including community colleges—also bring together students in ways that help them form new relationships.46 In other words, part of the benefit of attending college (any college) may accrue through effects on the "marriage market."
The "marriage market theory" likens the marriage search process to a job search. Based on the marriage market one faces, one assesses the quality of available potential mates and one's own ability to attract a mate, and then weighs this information to choose the best available potential partner. The Fragile Families data indicate that repartnering after a nonmarital birth is fairly common (for example, within five years of that birth, 20 percent of women are living with a new partner), though it is less common among women who obtain additional education following their child's birth. That said, when they do repartner, women who have gone back to school are significantly more likely to "trade up" and partner with better-educated men. In fact, women who get additional education following their child's birth increase their odds of repartnering with a college-educated man by 62 percent.47
One concern is that even though, on average, attending college appears to increase the appeal of individuals in a competitive marriage market, it may make it less likely that some will find a satisfactory spouse.48 For example, as black women earn more college diplomas than black men, they are left with a sparse market of college-educated African American men from which to choose, if they wish to marry someone from the same racial background. Likely as a result, the correlation of educational attainment between marital partners is weaker among African Americans than it is among whites, with African Americans more likely than whites to marry across educational groups and black women more likely than white women to marry someone with less education.49 This relationship may also be affected by the lower rates of college completion among African American men, since intermarriage between individuals with "some college" and college graduates is waning.50
Some evidence suggests that changes in the marriage market for African American women, resulting from their higher rates of college success, may harm their families' well-being. For example, research indicates that in unfavorable marriage markets individuals often have to lower their standards, a move associated with poorer quality of relationships between unmarried parents (based on measures of whether a parent is fair, loving, helpful, or critical) and lower probabilities of marriage.51 Distinguishing between developmental care (involvement in children's intellectual, physical, and social development) and nondevelopmental care (all other forms of parenting), researchers argue that certain forms of marital educational homogamy are associated with greater time spent on developmental care. The relationship holds only among highly educated adults and is stronger for fathers, for whom "homogamy produces a 43 percent increase in ... weekday developmental care." 52 Data from the Fragile Families study lead to similar conclusions, with authors finding that certain forms of educational homogamy have positive effects on socio-emotional indicators of children's development at age five, affecting school readiness.53
Attending college also affects family well-being by helping unmarried mothers form networks of similarly well-educated friends, including friends who shape their decisions about parenting practices and expectations of educational success for children.54 For example, research indicates that middle-class mothers with more education are more committed to the concerted cultivation of their children. Annette Lareau's qualitative study of twelve families with third and fourth graders from upper-middle-class, working-class, and disadvantaged backgrounds describes the different parenting techniques of parents from different class backgrounds. Families with more education give their children little leisure time and instead stress lessons and activities to fully develop their cognitive and social potential. These parents also interact with their children in a deliberate manner, often talking to them as if they were adults, reasoning with them, and encouraging them to make eye contact. Such parenting leads children to gain a sense of confidence that has implications for how they then interact with other adults and institutions.55
In contrast, families with less parental education use a parenting style that Lareau terms "natural growth." From this perspective, being a good parent means providing the essentials in life such as food, comfort, and shelter. These parents give their children more independent leisure time and spend more time interacting with extended family. They are also more likely to speak to their children using directives and to establish clear boundaries between adults and children. As a result, working-class children are said not to develop a sense of entitlement in their interactions with adults and institutions. In this way, differing parenting styles are thought to affect children's schooling outcomes, as educators reward the behaviors encouraged by middle-class parents, not those facilitated by working-class parenting.
Although attending college may promote unmarried mothers' social interactions with better-educated women, it does not have unambiguously positive social effects. It may, for example, impair relationships with family and friends who are not in college. For example, first-generation college students (who predominate among unmarried parenting undergraduates) describe serious tensions between themselves and their parents over their college attendance. One participant in a research study reported, "People in my family don't understand that [college], you see. They are all against me. Why do you think you have to be better than the rest of us? We're all happy. Why can't you just be happy with this? And I just—I'm not. I'm too smart for my job. I'm smarter than my bosses." 56 Unmarried parents also often struggle with social interactions at school. For example, Jillian Duquaine-Watson describes a particularly "chilly climate" on community college campuses. She reports that unmarried mothers lack friends on campus and are poorly treated by their professors.57
Studies tend to show that parents with more education (regardless of marital status) commit more time to their children than do less-educated parents and exhibit less gender specialization between the spouses.58 But although all parents who have completed college may tend to spend more time with their children, unmarried parents who are attending college find that the time they have to spend with their children is quite constrained. Because financial aid, as noted, is often insufficient to meet students' needs, many unmarried parents must work long hours. Although financial aid once made it possible for students to devote time exclusively to studying and parenting—with school essentially replacing work—students today very commonly study, parent, and work.59 Analyses of data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement indicate that unmarried parents attending two-year colleges spend a substantial amount of time both working and caring for their children. More than one-third report spending thirty or more hours each week working for pay, while another 17 percent devote twenty-one to thirty hours. In addition, nearly 60 percent of unmarried mothers and 30 percent of unmarried fathers say they allocate thirty or more hours each week to child care, while also attending school.60 Several studies indicate that students who work more than twenty hours a week are significantly less likely to complete college than those who do not (though a causal relationship between the two has not been established).61 Said one low-income mother, "It's just trying to find time to actually study. You sit down to study and you've got a kid that's constantly wanting, you know, and won't go to bed unless you go to bed." 62 Likely as a result, unmarried parents often begin a college semester enrolled full time and gradually drop courses as the semester progresses.63
The links between college attainment and individuals' income and occupation are positive and well established.64 But as the cost of college attendance rises, and need-based financial aid (particularly in the form of grants) diminishes, attending college compromises some students' economic resources. The many public programs that offer support to unmarried parents attending college—Pell Grants, federal subsidized loans, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the earned income tax credit, food stamps, subsidized housing, the nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Medicaid, the Workforce Investment Act, and Head Start—are neither well coordinated nor easily accessed. Confusion about what is available leads many low-income students to the two most "straightforward" sources of income—loans and work. Both involve significant costs and can work at cross-purposes with public forms of support. For example, as noted, too much work can lead to reductions in benefits, and earnings do not always replace the lost income. As one single mother reported in a research study, "It's a struggle trying to figure out the right amount of work and still get the benefits I need to stay in school." 65 In addition, time spent working can compromise time spent studying, resulting in poor grades and, again, the loss of financial aid.
Beyond enabling (or even inducing) some poor financial decisions, college may also diminish the economic resources of students who do not complete a degree and of those who incur significant debt from student loans and other forms of credit used to finance attendance. Evidence on whether debt delays marriage and the arrival of a first child is inconclusive, but debt payments do seem to figure into families' calculations about their capacity to raise a child. According to one survey, 25 percent of low-income college graduates said that debt drove them to delay childbearing, and 20 percent said that debt caused them to delay marriage.66 Studies indicate that financial stress has generally negative effects on family stability.67
Mental and Physical Health
On average, college-educated adults are said to live longer, healthier lives and to have better access to health care.68 One recent study, for example, found that even among individuals with the same household income, college graduates report being somewhat happier than high school graduates.69 But experiences may also vary widely—for example, while in college, many unmarried parents forgo health insurance. In one qualitative study of low-income mothers attending college, the author found that "balancing the right amount of work and aid often put the women in precarious situations, especially regarding health care coverage." 70
Moreover, the severe time and economic constraints facing parents exacerbate their stress levels. Lorraine Johnson and her colleagues note that more mothers (married or unmarried) could complete degree programs if they could "work with community college staff and faculty members to resolve stress-related problems early in their academic careers."71 Mothers attending college feel "conflict over the short-term sacrifices versus long-term gains for their families and stress from competing demands of familial and school roles." 72 In a qualitative study of mothers enrolled in two different colleges, one single mom reported feeling guilty that "on Tuesdays I'm here from 9:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night and my poor child is at school and then he's with me for a while and then he goes off with somebody else for my night class."73