1-parent families hurt kids, but what can we do?

The sharp rise in single-parent families is linked to a widening education gap, write researchers in Education Next.

Fifty-five percent of black children and 22 percent of whites live in single-parent families.


What can be done? “Encourage young adults to think more about whether, when, and with whom to have children,” writes Isabel Sawhill, author of Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage, in Purposeful Parenthood.

Strengthening education and job training so more young men are “marriageable” is important, Sawhill writes. So is persuading young people to plan their futures. “Where long-acting reversible contraceptives (or LARCs) have been made more affordable, and women have been educated about their safety and effectiveness, usage has climbed dramatically and unintended pregnancy rates have fallen sharply,” she writes.

Illustration by Bernard Maisner

Illustration by Bernard Maisner

Sawhill and Brookings’ colleague Ron Haskins have identified the “success sequence” for young people: Earn a high school diploma (or more), work full time and wait till you’re at least 21 and married before having a child. Ninety-eight percent of people who do this will live above the poverty line and almost three-quarters will reach the middle class. Three-quarters of those who miss all three success markers will be poor; almost none will be middle class.

Schools can discourage unwed, unplanned parenthood by providing career training and helping young people develop character traits such as drive and prudence, writes Fordham’s Michael Petrilli in How Can Schools Address America’s Marriage Crisis?

Young men who’d enrolled in “career academies” in high school earned more, worked more and were 33 percent more likely to be married as young adults, notes Petrilli, citing a controlled MDRC study. The effect was especially strong for minority males.

Undereducated Americans

The demand for college-educated workers has outpaced the supply, concludes The Undereducated American, a new study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The weak economy has hidden the problem, says Anthony P. Carnevale, co-author of the report. “In recession and recovery, we remain fixated on the high school jobs that are lost and not coming back. We are hurtling into a future dominated by college-level jobs unprepared.”

The U.S. economy will need an additional 20 million postsecondary-educated workers by 2025, Georgetown predicts. This includes 15 million with bachelor’s degrees, one million with associate degrees and four million with vocational certificates. Adding these new graduates will stop the rise of income inequality, according to the report, which predicts wages will rise 24 percent for high school graduates, 15 percent for those with an associate degree and 6 percent for bachelor’s degree holders.

All this jibes with President Obama’s push to make the U.S. first in the world in college graduates by 2020, points out Inside Higher Ed.

The shortage of college-educated workers has created a rising wage premium, write Carnevale and co-author Stephen Rose.

College graduates earn 74 percent more than do high school graduates today — a gap that is up from 40 percent in 1980.

. . . (Adding 20 million college-educated workers) would not only allow the wage premium to shrink to 46 percent, much closer to what it was in 1980, but increase the gross domestic product by about $500 billion over what it would be without those better-educated, higher-earning workers.

Increasing college-going and graduation rates requires spending more on higher education — unlikely, Carnevale concedes — or making higher ed more efficient.

Higher education has not historically been inclined to look for efficiency, but it is likely that “as money slims down, there will be kicking and screaming, and higher ed will move toward efficiencies,” he said.

A bachelor’s degree pays off even for secretaries, plumbers and cashiers, asserts New York Times columnist Dave Leonhardt, citing the Georgetown report. Blue-collar workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more and they’re healthier and happier than their high-school-educated colleagues.

“Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea,” says David Autor, an M.I.T. economist who studies the labor market. “Not sending them to college would be a disaster.”

About 33 percent of young adults earn a bachelor’s degree and another 10 percent receive a two-year degree, Leonhardt writes.

Financial aid cuts the cost:  “Average net tuition and fees at public four-year colleges this past year were only about $2,000 (though Congress may soon cut federal financial aid).”

Meanwhile, the wage premium for college graduates has soared.

According to the Hamilton Project, “college tuition in recent decades has delivered an inflation-adjusted annual return of more than 15 percent. For stocks, the historical return is 7 percent. For real estate, it’s less than 1 percent.”

Perhaps “college filters out people with low cognitive ability, low conscientiousness, and other adverse traits,” writes Arnold Kling.

My elitism comes from the few years I spent as an adjunct at George Mason. The typical undergrad in my course could not write a paper or solve an algebra problem. I doubt that adding more students at this margin is the way to raise people’s incomes.

College attainment will boost economic growth only if it increases cognitive skills, responds Andrew Gillen of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, citing studies by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. “Recent research (such as Academically Adrift) calls into question how much college boosts cognitive skills,” wrote Gillen in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

I don’t see much point in sending more high school graduates to college to take eighth-grade reading, writing and math.