Volume 46 - Article 3 | Pages 65–96  

Parental education, divorce, and children’s educational attainment: Evidence from a comparative analysis

By Raffaele Guetto, Fabrizio Bernardi, Francesca Zanasi


Background: Children who experience parental divorce have worse long-term educational attainment than children living in intact families. Less clear is the extent to which heterogeneity in the divorce penalty depends on parents’ socioeconomic background and contextual characteristics.

Objective: This study focuses on the negative consequences of parental divorce for children’s tertiary education attainment, their heterogeneity by parental socioeconomic background, and variation across time and space.

Methods: Single-level and multi-level linear probability models are estimated on several data sources in a comparative analysis of European countries and US regions. Different operationalizations of parental divorce are employed, including both marital and non-marital dissolutions.

Results: Results show a stronger negative association between parental divorce and the probability of obtaining a university degree for children of highly educated parents. This holds across different birth cohorts in both Europe and the United States, largely irrespective of the country or region of residence, the dataset, and the operationalization of divorce and parental education. Higher divorce and university enrollment rates increase the absolute size of the divorce penalty, but do not substantially alter its pattern of heterogeneity.

Conclusions: Children of high-SES families have more to lose in terms of the family resources relevant to achieving a university degree and are thus more negatively affected by parental divorce.

Contribution: The finding that the association between parental divorce and children’s educational attainment is stronger for children of highly educated parents across a variety of social and institutional environments has implications for the role of divorce in the reproduction of social inequalities.

Author's Affiliation

Other articles by the same author/authors in Demographic Research

The ethnic wage penalty in Western European regions: Is the European integration model confirmed when differences within countries are considered?
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Family arrangements and children’s educational outcomes: Heterogeneous penalties in upper-secondary school
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The impact of citizenship on intermarriage: Quasi-experimental evidence from two European Union Eastern enlargements
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The long-term consequences of parental divorce for children’s educational attainment
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Divorce risk factors and their variation over time in Spain
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