Parental education is linked - both directly and indirectly - to children’s wellbeing. Greater parental educational attainment influences child wellbeing through increases in income, enhanced home learning environment, changes in educational expectations, and improved academic achievement for children. Improvements to these familial processes are strongest for low-income families (Gardner et al., 2019; Prickett & Augustine, 2016). While the majority of studies have focused specifically on postnatal educational attainment of mothers, very few have examined the longitudinal effects of increased college attainment specifically. Two-generation (2gen) interventions have attempted to capitalize on the returns of investment in parental education to improve the lives of low-income families. However, rather than using empirical evidence that investigates the benefits of education for children of student parents, these studies draw from the dearth of evidence that highlights the importance of postsecondary education in labor market outcomes. This study aims to provide empirical evidence needed to better understand child and family wellbeing as a promising 2gen intervention.
Using longitudinal data from fifteen years of the Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), this study followed 291 children with one or both parents pursuing postsecondary education (PSE), as well as 376 children of similar age and demographic background without a parent pursuing PSE to account for differences in parental postnatal educational attainment. To examine the effect of PSE attainment, the study only included families at 200% of the federal poverty line. Data were used to examine the association between three indicators of child wellbeing (overall health status, academic achievement, and familial income), controlling for child-level demographic characteristics including sex, birth order, age at outcome, and number of siblings. Logistic regression models and two stratified models based on degree completed and PSE institution-type attended by the parent(s) (two-year vs. four-year) were conducted.
Regression analyses revealed that increased maternal educational attainment was associated with improved academic achievement at later waves (wave 9 and wave 15), but not in earlier waves. Increases in paternal educational attainment had no effect on children’s academic achievement at any wave. Bachelor degree completion of both mothers and fathers was associated with increased overall health status for children, as well as an increase in familial income. Notably, postnatal education did not improve children's overall health status if a parent did not obtain a Bachelor’s degree. Family income increased with PSE attendance, but was not significant for those who did not complete a Bachelor's degree during the course of the study period.
Findings confirm prior research that highlights the link between maternal educational attainment and child wellbeing (Magnuson, 2007). Importantly, the results call for 2gen programs that facilitate degree completion, rather than attendance. Although 22% of all undergraduate students in the United States have dependent children (IWPR, 2019), their low graduation rates will not serve to promote their economic mobility unless institutions work to mitigate barriers and promote degree completion. This study illuminates the potential of degree attainment in promoting the wellbeing of low-income children and families.