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Deaths in the family can affect the educational attainment of children

Deaths in the family can shape kids' educational attainment in unexpected ways.

The impact of death in the family is most often negative, but, in some instances, a family death can improve the chances that children will further their education, suggests a recent study by Penn State scientists.

Ashton Verdery, associate professor of sociology, demography, and social data analytics, Penn State, said, “Overwhelmingly, the prior work on topics related to this focused on the many negative impacts that a death in the family can have on educational attainment, but, when we carefully thought this through, we began to wonder whether there could be ways that a death in the family could potentially benefit the educational attainment of some children.”

If a child or adolescent experiencing death in a family, especially in white families, there is an increased chance that children would attend and graduate from college. This effect might be related to the flow of inherited wealth in the family.

However, this is not the case in Black families. The death of a grandparent in Black families significantly altered their educational attainment.

Verdery, who also worked with Sarah E. Patterson, postdoctoral fellow, Population Studies Center, University of Michigan, said, “If a grandparent dies unexpectedly and leaves a child a trust, for example, that would increase the chances of furthering educational attainment.”

“Besides financial impacts, deaths in the family may also change patterns of care and attention. For instance, the family may focus considerable attention and resources on loved ones who are sick. When these family members succumb to the disease or illness, those resources and attention may then shift back to children, positively changing the trajectory of their education.”

“The connection between family deaths and educational attainment is complex and can rest on many factors, including socioeconomic status, race, and gender.”

“A death in the family is a tragedy, but there are a lot of complicated ways that family deaths can impact educational attainment.”

“These networks can be so complex that continued investigation into the range of ways that deaths of family members affect a child’s educational attainment would be necessary. Raising awareness about those effects could help schools, and guidance counselors better prepare interventions for impacts that a death in the family may have on a student’s education.”

“We need better identification of children in schools who have lost close relatives, particularly parents. This needs to be a real priority area because kids who lose parents may be less likely to complete their education, which will have a lifelong impact on them. This seems like a natural intervention point. I know that there are a lot of school counselors and other people who are working in this area. I don’t know if it is getting the priority attention that it needs in terms of state and federal policy.”

For the study, scientists used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) conducted between 1968 to 2013. PSID was the longest-running longitudinal household survey in the United States that includes data on about 75,252 individuals.

The database includes links to decedents from the National Death Index in 2009 and close and extended family networks constructed from the PSID’s Family Identification Mapping System (FIMS) data, which identify sibling, parent-child, and grandparent-grandchild ties.

The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Population Research Institute, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a Family Demography Traineeship, and the Canadian Institute of Health Research and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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