Fathers make success
NRO's Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews W. Bradford Wilcox on the involvement of fathers in their children’s lives

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Article Highlights

  • Pew finds that, among Millennials, college grads earn about $17,500 a year more than peers with only a high-school diploma.

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  • Teens with involved dads are 98% more likely to graduate than teens without involved dads.

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  • Dads often play an important role in protecting their kids from risks that can derail their chances of attending and graduating from college.

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A dedicated father makes a difference to successful graduation, W. Bradford Wilcox explains in a new report from the American Enterprise Institute titled “Dad and the diploma: The difference fathers make for college graduation.” He talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what can be done to help dads help their children to achieve college success.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why is college education so important? Not everyone can or should go to college, should they?

W. BRADFORD WILCOX: Today, a college diploma has emerged as an increasingly important ticket to the American dream. The Pew Research Center finds that, among Millennials, college graduates earn about $17,500 a year more than their peers with only a high-school diploma. One Brookings study found that, over a lifetime, a college degree provides an income premium of about $570,000.

But no, you’re right, college isn’t for everyone. There are promising vocational educational and apprenticeship programs now afoot in places like South Carolina that are also furnishing young adults with a ticket to the American dream. For those who are gifted at using their hands to build or make things, there are good options out there — and the country could do more to extend vocational education to young adults with interests in the trades, construction, IT, and advanced manufacturing.

LOPEZ: Why are fathers so important to college graduation?

WILCOX: This new research brief from the American Enterprise Institute indicates that teenagers with involved or highly involved dads are 98 percent more likely to graduate from college than teens who report their dads are not involved in their lives. The figures below also suggest that paternal involvement is especially important for teens whose mothers have at least a high-school education.

I think that there are at least four reasons why dads matter when it comes to teens’ odds of later graduating from college:

1. Money. In most families headed by married parents, fathers are the primary breadwinners. The financial sacrifices dads make for their kids — from paying for a tutor to picking up the tab for tuition at prestigious schools – are obviously important when it comes to increasing the likelihood that their children will attend and graduate from college.

2. Intellectual stimulation. Both by directly engaging their children in their homework and by setting an example of being intellectually curious — from reading the newspaper to talking about history or politics or science — fathers can foster an academic orientation in their children that carries them into and through college.

3. Challenges. Psychologists such as Daniel Paquette have noted that dads, more than moms, tend to encourage their children to embrace life’s challenges and opportunities. “Fathers play a particularly important role in the development of children’s openness to the world,” writes psychologist Daniel Paquette. “They also tend to encourage children to take risks, while at the same time ensuring the latter’s safety and security, thus permitting children to learn to be braver in unfamiliar situations, as well as to stand up for themselves.” This independent orientation, in turn, can serve boys and girls well throughout their educational and vocational lives — including at college.

4. Protection from risk. Dads often play an important role in protecting their kids from risks — such as a teenage pregnancy or a run-in with the law — that can derail their chances of attending and graduating from college. As the figure below indicates, I have found, for instance, that fathers who enjoy a high-quality relationship with their daughter are much less likely to see their daughter ending up pregnant as a teenager, compared to fathers with no real relationship.

LOPEZ: Why is it important for high-school seniors graduating in the next month or two to understand the practical, emotional, and financial sacrifices their parents have made?

WILCOX: Gratitude. Gratitude is an under-appreciated virtue in our society today. It would be good for the country’s seniors to express their deep and abiding gratitude to their parents for making so many sacrifices upon their behalf. And their parents would sure appreciate it!

LOPEZ: Are there things you might highlight to policymakers from your report?

WILCOX: One thing that is very clear from the analyses associated with the report is that there is a fatherhood divide between better-educated families and less-educated families. The data, taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, indicate that children in better-educated homes are more likely to enjoy a father who is involved or highly involved in their lives.

One challenge, then, facing policymakers is how to bridge this class divide in paternal involvement in American family life.

LOPEZ: How can we culturally or practically encourage the kind of parenting that makes the difference you observe?

WILCOX: I think we need to drive home the message — in the popular culture, and in our social circles — that dads matter, and that they can play an important role in their kids’ lives. But we also need to be careful here to stress that dads can engage their kids in a variety of ways, from tossing a baseball on a spring day to talking about politics to fishing. Different approaches will appeal to different types of men. But the bottom line here is: Try to be meaningfully present to your children. That means, among other things, put away the smartphone!

LOPEZ: What is the Home Economics Project — what is it doing and what do you hope it pulls off?

WILCOX: The Home Economics Project seeks to educate business leaders, scholars, policymakers, and the general public about the role that the quality, structure, and stability of family life plays in fostering free enterprise at home and abroad. This project, jointly sponsored by AEI and the Institute for Family Studies, is designed to explore the ways in which what happens in the home affects what happens in the marketplace. In this case, this new brief suggests that the quality of family life has important implications for young men and women acquiring the kind of human capital they need to flourish in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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