The family-to-prison-to-college pipeline: Married fathers and young men’s transition to adulthood

An increasing minority of young men are falling through the cracks. “Startup failure” is a description that is all too common. Consider taking a stable job – a decent measure of whether someone has a life together. For young men (aged 16-24), labor force participation rates are falling. In 1980, the percentage of young men who were looking for or had a job was 84%, now it has dropped to 60%. Similarly, the number of students entering college is falling so rapidly that only about 4 in 10 students are now men. Finally, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (1997), young women are 3–4 times more likely to spend time in jail or prison than women before the age of 30. The bottom line is that on many fronts, too many young men today are failing to successfully transition into adulthood.

These negative male tendencies have been addressed in books such as Boys adrift by Leonard Sax or Boys and Men by Richard Reeves. They have even attracted the attention of key figures on the left, such as Melinda Gates, known for championing women’s issues, who is donating $20 million to the Reeves Institute for Boys and Men of America to address this male ailment.

Public intellectuals like Reeves, Scott Galloway and Jonathan Haidt blame the decline in young men’s fortunes on changes in our economy, on schools that don’t do a good job of serving boys, or on technology that distracts adolescent males from real life. However, they largely overlooked an even more fundamental factor in the boy’s life: whether he grew up in an intact marital home with his father.

This research summary fills that gap by looking at young men’s likelihood of graduating from college or ending up in jail or prison in terms of their family structure while growing up. The most striking finding is that young men from intact families are more likely to go to jail or prison than to complete college, while young men raised by married fathers are much more likely to graduate from college than to spend any time in jail/jail.

Previous research

Social scientists generally find that children raised by married biological parents do better than children from intact families. This relationship holds regardless of race, gender, or income and applies to many outcomes (physical health, mental health, education level, etc.). But why do we find this relationship?

Part of this story has to do with what sociologists call “selection effects” – that is, married people are, on average, wealthier, better educated, more religious, and even healthier. These factors help explain some of the marriage-related effects. However, we also believe that the relationship between family structure and life outcomes is causal. Especially when it comes to men, married parents usually offer boys:

  • Greater income and other socioeconomic resources that give them an advantage in school and college. In particular, boys are more likely to have access to their father’s income if he is married to their mother;
  • More attention, affection and constructive discipline, especially from fathers, to minimize the risk of engaging in criminal or anti-social activity that could land them in jail; AND,
  • Two parents who know them, love them, and have a biological bond with them that increases their willingness to invest in them and reduces the risk of neglecting or abusing them, as sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur note in their book: Growing up with a single parent: what hurts, what helps. On the other hand, boys raised outside intact marital homes are more likely to be exposed to unrelated adults, especially men, who pose a greater risk of neglect or even abuse, as Brad Wilcox noted in his book: Get Married: Why Americans Must Stand Up to the Elites, Create Strong Families, and Save Civilization.

Family structure and young men’s outcomes

This summary adds to the literature on family structure and outcomes for boys and men by focusing on two key outcomes for young men: obtaining a college degree and entering prison or prison. For example, recent research by Melissa Kearney shows that young men from married households are more likely to complete college. Older research by Sara McLanahan and Cynthia Harper shows that young men from such households are less likely to go to prison. However, based on recent data, no study has examined family structure, college completion, and time in prison together for today’s young men.

Therefore, we use data from two nationally representative studies: the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (1997) and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent and Adult Health (Add Health). The NLSY97 survey includes a sample of Americans born between 1980 and 1984 who were first interviewed in 1997. The Add Health survey includes students in grades 7–12 who were first interviewed during the 1994–1995 school year. Both studies have different waves that follow respondents throughout their lives. We used wave IV (2008) of the Add Health study and the 2013/2014 wave of the NLSY97 to measure young men’s outcomes. Respondents in these studies were aged 24-32 and 28-34, respectively.

Figure 1 shows the percentage of men who graduated from college or went to jail/jail, broken down by family structure. Young men raised by two married biological parents – Add Health’s indicator of intact families – are almost 20 percentage points more likely to graduate from college than to end up in prison. What’s interesting is this Just a group that is more likely to graduate from college than in jail/jail. Meanwhile, the statistics are reversed for young men from intact families. In the Add Health study, all of the intact categories in this group are associated with a higher likelihood of going to prison among young men than those in college.

Figure 2 shows similar results using NLSY97 data, with a more pronounced difference. Young men from intact biological families are more than three times more likely to graduate from college than to go to prison. Again, young men from various intact family arrangements are more likely to go to prison than graduate from college in their twenties. Note: Different age cohorts, sample size, study methodology, and general noise explain the slight differences in patterns in these two different datasets.

Using NLSY97 data, we found that, after controlling for basic demographic characteristics such as race, maternal education, and childhood poverty, being raised outside an intact family doubles young men’s risk of going to prison. Young men raised outside an intact family are less than half as likely to graduate from college. We found similar results using the Add Health tool (see table A in the appendix).

The multivariate results suggest two noteworthy issues:

  • First, for young men, family structure is more strongly associated with incarceration and college completion than with race in both data sets.
  • Second, in both data sets, young men who grew up in intact families are more likely to go to prison than to go to college.

In other words, what we see with young men today is a family-to-prison or college pipeline that is more likely to lead young men from intact families to graduate from college and young men from intact families to jail or prison.


Using two nationally representative studies, Add Health and NLSY97, we find that boys from intact families are significantly more likely to complete college and avoid prison. This relationship holds even when compared to two-parent stepfamilies, consistent with McLanahan and Sandefur’s 1994 findings. Moreover, family structure remains a strong predictor of these outcomes, even when controlling for factors such as race, maternal education, and childhood poverty. . These findings are consistent with previous research and highlight a key point: when trying to address young men’s plight, family structure, and especially the presence of a father in the home, should not be overlooked.

These associations are suggestive, but we do not claim they demonstrate causation. Family structure is endogenous and depends on a number of life outcomes. Many unobserved covariates – such as differences in income or personality – are correlated with family structure and at the same time influence life outcomes. Nevertheless, these findings add to existing evidence and require further attention from social science researchers.

In a world where young men are increasingly failing to thrive, it’s encouraging to see new attention being paid to them. However, as the data shows, family structure should not be underestimated. We found that boys who grew up with both biological parents performed better in two key categories – school completion and incarceration – confirming that two parents matter to boys and men in America, including fathers. Therefore, any effort to revive the declining fortunes of young men should put family first.

Brad Wilcox is a Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Sam Herrin is an economics graduate from Georgia College & State University. Wendy Wang is director of research at the Institute for Family Studies. Jesse Smith is an assistant professor of sociology at Benedictine College.