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You Lose More, When You Have More to Lose

Parental separation and its effects on children’s educational attainment

Separation can strongly impact the environment in which a child grows up. In some cases, it can have the positive consequence of reducing the amount of parental conflict a child would experience. In other cases, parental separation can contribute to an increasing disadvantage for children due to a loss of financial resources or spending less time with a parent who moved out.

Under what conditions do families manage to prevent parental separation from negatively affecting their children? A logical expectation is that families with greater resources can better shield their children from negative effects. Fabrizio Bernardi and Diederik Boertien show in a recent study that the opposite appears to be the case: parental separation is more influential for the educational attainment of children from resourceful families than for those with a poorer background.

Based on data from the British Cohort Study 1970, the results indicate that the chances of obtaining an university degree among children who experienced parental separation was 8% lower compared to children whose parents remained together until they were age 15. However, this penalty varies depending on parents’ educational levels: children from separated families where both parents attain at least an upper secondary degree were 13% less likely to graduate from university in comparison to their counterparts from intact families. This difference decreases to 6% among children from lower educated parents.

A major factor explaining this difference is family income after divorce. Figure 1 displays how the chances of obtaining an university degree depends on income among families. Lower educated parents have a relatively low family income, whether they separate or not. For these families, further reductions in income due to separation are relatively inconsequential for their children’s educational attainment, as little money is available for university education in the first place. Instead, children from more highly educated parents have more to lose from reductions in family income, as this directly affects their chances of going to university.

In sum, separation has a bigger impact on children from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds. Separation could therefore, though unexpectedly, lead to a more equal chance of attendance in university between socioeconomic groups.


Figure 1. Share of respondents attaining tertiary education by parental income at age 16, including vertical reference lines reflecting average income by parental separation and education status
Source: Bernardi & Boertien (2016) based on data from the British Cohort Study 1970



*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116 for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties. FamiliesAndSocieties ( has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.