A substantial literature suggests that family disruption leads to lower educational attainment among children. We focus on how the effects of parental divorce on children’s education differ across families with varying likelihoods of disruption. Using U.S. panel data, with careful attention to the assumptions and methods needed to estimate total and mediating causal effects, we find a significant effect of parental divorce on educational attainment among children whose parents were unlikely to divorce, for whom divorce was thus a relative shock. We find no effect among children whose parents were likely to divorce and for whom divorce was one of many disadvantages, and thus less economically and socially disruptive. We also find that the observed effect of divorce on children’s education is strongly mediated by post-divorce family income. Children’s psychosocial skills explain a portion of the effect among children with a low propensity for parental divorce, while cognitive skills play no role in explaining the negative association between divorce and children’s education. Our results suggest that family disruption does not uniformly disrupt children’s attainment.
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