Divorce grounds high-fliers

August 23, 1996

Children from single-parent homes are losing out in the US college stakes. Tim Cornwell reports

Children born in the late 1970s, when divorce rates in the United States reached their current level of about 50 per cent, are now entering college. The impact of a marriage breaking up will apparently follow them well after they have left the family home, through their student years and beyond.

A recent paper by two Cornell University economists shows that students from one-parent households, most of whose parents divorced, were only half as likely to enter the top 50 colleges in the US as those who lived with both parents. It confirmed other findings that children from broken homes are substantially less likely to enter any college and less likely to complete if they do.

About 50 per cent of Americans reach a college or university. The chances of children from single-parent homes doing so is consistently about eight to 12 per cent lower, even for households with similar incomes. The Cornell study showed that while 2.3 per cent of children from two-parent households make it to top-rated colleges, only 1.2 per cent from one-parent families do.

One of the main obstacles is financial. College fees are rarely included in divorce settlements, and nowhere are they required by US law, says Robert Emery, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

Assessing parental income for grants or loans can be a problem. Emery cites the case of one of his own students whose well-to-do father threatened to stop paying his daughter's fees if she continued to side with her less wealthy mother. "A parent will get mad at the other, and one way of punishing them is cutting off support for a child's education," he says.

Emery insists "the main storyline" is that the great majority of children of divorced parents are resilient. The last thing they need is the "double damage" of being labelled "scarred for life" after dealing with the pain of the divorce itself.

But it is also clear, he says, that in some cases they suffer emotionally. There is an old saying that for children there is no such thing as no-fault divorce. Short-term trauma can end in long-term anger, self-directed or aimed at one or both parents. Twice as many children from single-parent families drop out of school; boys appear worse affected than girls.

British tracking of young adults born in the 1960s confirms that they suffer more mental health problems, stress, and emotional conflict.

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