Family structure and high school graduation: how children born to unmarried mothers fare

Sharon Sassler, Kristi Williams, Fenaba Renae Addo, Adrianne M. Frech, Elizabeth C. Cooksey


A vast body of research indicates that being raised in a family that does not include both biological parents is associated with a range of poor outcomes in young adulthood, though much of this literature has focused on youth who have experienced parental divorce. Less is known about the well-being of children born to unmarried mothers, especially when they reach young adulthood. This paper explores the association between being born to an unmarried mother and graduation from secondary school. Data are from the linked Children and Young Adult sample of the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79). We find significant differences in the likelihood of graduating from high school among youth born to a never-married versus a married mother. These disparities remain even after including controls for social and economic characteristics of mothers prior to the child’s birth. Even though mothers’ subsequent unions offer few benefits to the educational outcomes of children born to unmarried mothers, maternal marital unions are more advantageous than when mothers remain outside coresidential relationships or enter cohabiting unions.

Sharon SASSLER,  Full Professor, CornellUniversity, Department of Policy Analysis and Management, 297 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, Ithaca, NY14853. E-mail:

Kristi WILLIAMS, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, 238 Townshend Hall, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210. E-mail:

Fenaba Renae ADDO,  Robert Wood Johnson Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Population Health Sciences, 707 Warf, 610 Walnut St., University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53726-2397. E-mail:

Adrianne M. FRECH, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Olin Hall 258, The Universityof Akron, Akron, OH 44325. E-mail:

Elizabeth C. COOKSEY, Full Professor, Department of Sociology, 238 Townshend Hall, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210. E-mail:


nonmarital fertility, marital status, cohabitation, educational attainment, young adult transitions

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ISSN: 2035-5556

Reg. Tribunale di Roma n. 3321/54