Population Research and Policy Review

, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 469–494 | Cite as

Family Instability and College Enrollment and Completion

  • Paula Fomby


This research uses data from waves I and IV of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health, N = 9,631) to consider whether and how family instability in early or later childhood affects college enrollment and completion of a Bachelor’s degree by age 24. Explanatory factors include maternal selection into unstable unions, household resources available in adolescence, and adolescents’ academic achievement, behavior, and attitudes in high school. The association of later family instability with college enrollment and completion is largely explained by household resources in adolescence. The association of early family instability with college enrollment is partially explained by each set of factors, and its association with college completion, given enrollment, is explained by pre-existing maternal characteristics. The results demonstrate that early family instability has enduring consequences for eventual status attainment and that the mechanisms that connect family instability to educational outcomes vary by the timing of family structure change.


Family structure Educational attainment Adolescent behavior 


  1. Ackerman, B. P., Kogos, J., Youngstrom, E., Schoff, K., & Izard, C. (1999). Family instability and the problem behaviors of children from economically disadvantaged families. Developmental Psychology, 35(1), 258–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alexander, K. L., & Entwisle, D. R. (1988). Factors affecting achievement test scores and marks received by black and white first graders. The Elementary School Journal, 88, 449–471.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Amato, P. R. (2010). Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments. Journal of Marriage and The Family, 72(3), 650–666.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Brooks, D. (2011). The wrong inequality. New York: The New York Times.Google Scholar
  6. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013). Education pays. Retrieved May 3, 2013, from
  7. Cavanagh, S. E. (2008). Family structure history and adolescent adjustment. Journal of Family Issues, 29(7), 944–980.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cavanagh, S. E., Crissey, S. R., & Raley, R. K. (2008). Family structure history and adolescent romance. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70(3), 698–714.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cavanagh, S. E., & Fomby, P. (2012). School context, family instability, and the academic careers of adolescents. Sociology of Education, 85(1), 81–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cavanagh, S. E., & Huston, A. C. (2006). Family instability and children’s early problem behavior. Social Forces, 85(1), 551–581.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cavanagh, S. E., & Huston, A. C. (2008). The timing of family instability and children’s social development. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70(5), 1258–1270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cavanagh, S. E., Schiller, K. S., & Riegle-Crumb, C. (2006). Marital transitions, parenting, and schooling: Exploring the link between family-structure history and adolescents’ academic status. Sociology of Education, 79(4), 329–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cherlin, A. (2009). The marriage-go-round: The state of marriage and the family in America today. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  14. Conley, D. (2009). Being black, living in the red (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  15. Cooper, C. E., McLanahan, S. S., Meadows, S. O., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2009). Family structure transitions and maternal parenting stress. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(3), 558–574.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cooper, C. E., Osborne, C. A., Beck, A. N., & McLanahan, S. S. (2011). Partnership instability, school readiness, and gender disparities. Sociology of Education, 84(3), 246–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Crosnoe, R. (2009). Low-income students and the socioeconomic composition of public high schools. American Sociological Review, 74, 709–730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Crosnoe, R., & Needham, B. (2004). Holism, contextual variability, and the study of friendships in adolescent development. Child Development, 75(1), 264–279.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Donahue, K. L., D’Onofrio, B. M., Bates, J. E., Lansford, J. E., Dodge, K. A., & Pettit, G. S. (2010). Early exposure to parents’ relationship instability: Implications for sexual behavior and depression in adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 47(6), 547–554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Duncan, G. J., & Magnuson, K. A. (2005). Can family socioeconomic resources account for racial and ethnic test score gaps? The Future of Children, 15(1), 35–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Evans, G. W., Schamberg, M. A., & McEwen, B. S. (2009). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(16), 6545–6549.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Fomby, P. (2011). Family instability and school readiness in the United Kingdom. Family Science, 2(3), 171–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fomby, P., & Bosick, S. J. (in press). Family instability and the transition to adulthood. Journal of Marriage and Family.Google Scholar
  24. Fomby, P., Cavanagh, S. E., & Goode, J. (2011). Family instability and school readiness in the United States and the United Kingdom. Paper presented at the National Council on Family Relations.Google Scholar
  25. Fomby, P., & Cherlin, A. J. (2007). Family instability and child well-being. American Sociological Review, 72, 181–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Fomby, P., Mollborn, S., & Sennott, C. A. (2010). Race/ethnic differences in effects of family instability on adolescents’ risk behavior. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(2), 234–253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Fomby, P., & Osborne, C. (2010). The influence of union instability and union quality on children’s aggressive behavior. Social Science Research, 39(6), 912–924.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Fomby, P., & Sennott, C. (2013). Family structure instability and mobility: The consequences for adolescents’ problem behavior. Social Science Research, 42, 181–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Forman, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (2003). Family instability and young adolescent maladjustment: The mediating effects of parenting quality and adolescent appraisals of family security. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 32(1), 94–105.Google Scholar
  30. Furstenberg, F. F. (1990). Divorce and the American family. Annual Review of Sociology, 16, 379–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Harris, K. M. (2009). The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), waves I & II, 1994–1996; wave III, 2001–2002; wave IV, 2007–2009 [machine-readable data file and documentation]. Chapel Hill: Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.Google Scholar
  32. Harris, K. M., Halpern, C. T., Whitsel, E., Hussey, J., Tabor, J., Entzel, P., et al. (2009). The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health: Research design (WWW document). Retrieved from Accessed 13 March 2013.
  33. Heard, H. E. (2007a). The family structure trajectory and adolescent school performance. Journal of Family Issues, 28(3), 319–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Heard, H. E. (2007b). Fathers, mothers, and family structure: Family trajectories, parent gender, and adolescent schooling. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69(2), 435–450.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Heckman, J. J. (2008). Schools, skills, and synapses. Economic Inquiry, 46(3), 289–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Henretta, J. C., Wolf, D. A., Van Voorhis, M. F., & Soldo, B. J. (2012). Family structure and the reproduction of inequality: Parents’ contribution to children’s college costs. Social Science Research, 41(4), 876–887.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hill, R. (1949). Families under stress: Adjustment to the crisis of war separation and reunion. New York: Harper and Brothers.Google Scholar
  38. Jednorog, K., Altarelli, I., Monzalvo, K., Fluss, J., Dubois, J., Billard, C., et al. (2012). The influence of socioeconomic status on children’s brain structure. Plos One, 7(8), e42486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Julian, T., & Kominski, R. (2011). Education and synthetic work-life earnings estimates. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.Google Scholar
  40. Khatiwada, I., McLaughlin, J., Sum, A., & Palma, S. (2007). The fiscal consequences of adult educational attainment. Boston: Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University.Google Scholar
  41. Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal childhoods: Race, class, and family life. Second edition. A decade later (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  42. Locke, E. W., & Burgess, H. J. (1945). The family: From institution to companionship. New York: American Book Co.Google Scholar
  43. Magnuson, K., & Berger, L. M. (2009). Family structure states and transitions: Associations with children’s well-being during middle childhood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(3), 575–591.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Mare, R. D. (1980). Social background and school continuation decisions. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 75, 295–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Martin, M. A. (2012). Family structure and the intergenerational transmission of educational advantage. Social Science Research, 41(1), 33–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. McLanahan, S., & Percheski, C. (2008). Family structure and the reproduction of inequalities. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 257–276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Meadows, S. O., McLanahan, S., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2008a). Stability and change in family structure and mental health trajectories. American Sociological Review, 73(2), 314–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Meadows, S. O., McLanahan, S. S., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2008b). Stability and change in family structure and maternal health trajectories. American Sociological Review, 73(2), 314–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Milan, S., Pinderhughes, E. E., & Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group. (2006). Family instability and child maladjustment trajectories during elementary school. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 34(1), 43–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Molfese, V. J., Modglin, A., & Molfese, D. L. (2003). The role of environment in the development of reading skills: A longitudinal study of preschool and school-age measures. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36(1), 59–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. National Center for Education Statistics. (2011a). The condition of education 2011 (NCES 2011–033), indicator 21. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
  52. National Center for Education Statistics. (2011b). The condition of education 2011 (NCES 2011–033), indicator 23. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
  53. Osborne, C., Berger, L., & Magnuson, K. (2012). Family structure transitions and changes in maternal resources and well-being. Demography, 49(1), 23–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Osborne, C., & McLanahan, S. (2007). Partnership instability and child well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69(4), 1065–1083.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Osgood, D. W., Ruth, G., Eccles, J. S., Jacobs, J. E., & Barber, B. L. (2005). Six paths to adulthood: Fast starters, parents without careers, educated partners, educated singles, working singles, and slow starters. In R. A. Settersten Jr, F. F. Furstenberg Jr, & R. G. Rumbaut (Eds.), On the frontier of adulthood: Theory, research and policy (pp. 320–355). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Pong, S. L. (1998). The school compositional effect of single parenthood on 10th-grade achievement. Sociology of Education, 71(1), 23–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Raley, R. K., Kim, Y., & Daniels, K. (2012). Young adults’ fertility expectations and events: Associations with college enrollment and persistence. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74(4), 866–879.Google Scholar
  58. Ryan, R., & Claessens, A. E. (2012). Associations between family structure changes and children’s behavior problems: The moderating effects of timing and marital birth. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the population association of America.Google Scholar
  59. Steelman, L. C., & Powell, B. (1991). Sponsoring the next generation: Parental willingness to pay for higher education. American Journal of Sociology, 96(6), 1505–1529.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Sun, Y. M., & Li, Y. Z. (2009). Postdivorce family stability and changes in adolescents’ academic performance a growth-curve model. Journal of Family Issues, 30(11), 1527–1555.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Sun, Y. M., & Li, Y. Z. (2011). Effects of family structure type and stability on children’s academic performance trajectories. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73(3), 541–556.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Tomalski, P., & Johnson, M. H. (2010). The effects of early adversity on the adult and developing brain. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 23(3), 233–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Turley, R. N. L., & Desmond, M. (2011). Contributions to college costs by married, divorced, and remarried parents. Journal of Family Issues, 32(6), 767–790.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Watson, M. W., Fischer, K. W., Andreas, J. B., & Smith, K. W. (2004). Pathways to aggression in children and adolescents. Harvard Educational Review, 74(4), 404–430.Google Scholar
  65. Wojtkiewicz, R. A., & Holtzman, M. (2011). Family structure and college graduation: Is the stepparent effect more negative than the single parent effect? Sociological Spectrum, 31(4), 498–521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Wu, L. L. (1996). Effects of family instability, income, and income instability on the risk of a premarital birth. American Sociological Review, 61(3), 386–406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Wu, L. L., & Thomson, E. (2001). Race differences in family experience and early sexual initiation: Dynamic models of family structure and family change. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(3), 682–696.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of Colorado DenverDenverUSA

Personalised recommendations