Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman July 29, 2014

Does an active father makes children 98% more likely to graduate from college?

In defending traditional marriage, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a speech about values at Catholic University that fathers play a vital role in their children’s success.

Rubio cited statistics about the number of children born to unwed mothers and what that means for their chances to climb out of poverty and go to college.

After getting an education, finding a good job and getting married, "The final element of the success sequence is raising children in a married, two-parent home," Rubio said July 23, 2014. "Even in my own family, of course, I have examples of children raised by one parent who have gone on to successful lives. But we also know that having an active father makes children 98 percent more likely to graduate from college and complete the first step of the success sequence."

We decided to fact-check the 98 percent statistic.

Study of teenagers

A spokeswoman for Rubio pointed to a research brief about the role of fathers in college success by Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. The brief was published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute where Wilcox is a visiting scholar.

Wilcox used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a respected study of a representative sample of teenagers in grades 7–12 during the 1994–95 school year.

The survey asked teenagers 11 questions about activities they did with their dads -- for example, whether they received homework help from them. He found that by looking at the answers, Wilcox categorized 18 percent as having fathers who were not involved. For the remainder, he divided the fathers into three groups: somewhat involved, involved, or highly involved fathers.

"Compared to teens who reported that their fathers were not involved, teens with involved fathers were 98 percent more likely to graduate from college...," Wilcox wrote.

Wilcox also found that involved fathers played more of a role in their children completing college if those children had mothers who completed at least high school or college. He found that only 15 percent of teens with a high-school educated mom and an uninvolved dad graduated from college, compared to 30 percent of teens with an involved dad and a high-school educated mom.

Wilcox’s research wasn’t exclusively about married, biological or straight fathers; it looked at all fathers regardless of their marital status or if they lived with their children or sexual orientation. However Wilcox found that, "adolescents are much more likely to report an involved or highly involved father if their biological parents are married."

Other experts weigh in

Featured Fact-check

We interviewed seven experts about Wilcox’s research and Rubio’s statement. Wilcox’s findings align with social conservatives, which opens him up to some scrutiny from the left. That said, the experts we interviewed raised several nonpartisan points about Wilcox’s findings.

Professors noted that Wilcox’s research brief doesn’t carry the same weight as a peer-reviewed journal article. Also, they argued that Wilcox didn’t prove that fathers’ involvement caused their children to complete college -- instead he showed a correlation.

Ohio State University sociologist Kristi Williams told PolitiFact that Rubio’s claim that having an active father "makes" children 98 percent more likely to graduate from college "implies a causality that Professor Wilcox's study does not establish. (He) shows a correlation but does not establish this causality."

When we told Wilcox that professors raised concerns about causation, he pointed us to a paper written by other researchers in the Annual Review of Sociology about the causal effects of father absence. But that paper indicated there were studies that showed more of an effect on high school graduation. "There was weak evidence for effects on college attendance and graduation, with only one of four studies finding significant results," the paper said.

Lots of studies show that father involvement is helpful only when the fathers are competent parents and maintain a good relation to the mom, married or not, said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families and an Evergreen State College professor.

"Still, other research suggests that a better predictor of kids’ educational achievement than family structure is the mother’s education and educational aspirations for her children," Coontz told PolitiFact. "Which suggests we might want to prioritize upping that, instead of trying to marry such women off to low-income men whose chronic economic stress and insecurity very often erodes their functioning as partners and parents."

The experts we interviewed didn’t dispute the concept that active fathers could play a role in their children completing college. However, they said there can be additional factors at play, especially income.

"Kids from well-off families don’t have to combine work and study to the degree that poorer kids do," George Washington University professor Michael Wiseman said. "The question for Sen. Rubio should be, ‘Exactly what policies do you recommend for encouraging fathers to commit to their families and to marry the mother of their children?’ Talk about fatherhood is cheap. Ideas seem to be in short supply."

Our ruling

Rubio said, "Having an active father makes children 98 percent more likely to graduate from college."

Rubio was citing a research brief that looked at a survey of 11 different measures of fathers’ involvement with their children and whether the children graduated from college.

But when Rubio used the word "makes" he implied that having an active father causes their children to graduate from college, and the research doesn’t prove causation. Other researchers said there could be other reasons for the disparities in college graduation.

Rubio’s statement requires further explanation and relies on one piece of research only.

We rate this statement Half True.

Our Sources

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Speech about values at Catholic University, July 23, 2014

American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar Bradford Wilcox, "Dad and the diploma: the difference fathers make for college graduation," April 22, 2014

Annual Review of Sociology, "Causal effects of father absence," 2013

PolitiFact, "Marco Rubio says marriage decreases probability of child poverty 82 percent," Jan. 9, 2014

Interview, Brooke Sammon, spokeswoman for Sen. Marco Rubio, July 24, 2014

Interview, Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and associate professor of sociology University of Virginia, July 24, 2014

Interview, Phil Cowan, psychology professor University of California at Berkeley, July 24, 2014

Interview, Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and Director of Research and Public Education Council on Contemporary Families, July 24, 2014

Interview, Michael Wiseman, Research Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration, and Economics at George Washington University, July 24, 2014

Interview, Philip Cohen, director of graduate studies in sociology University of Maryland, July 24, 2014

Interview Sara McLanahan, sociology and public affairs professor Princeton University, July 25, 2014

Interview, Steven Martin, senior research associate Urban Institute, July 25, 2014

Interview, Shawn Fremstad, senior research associate at Center for Economic and Policy Research, July 28, 2014

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Amy Sherman

Does an active father makes children 98% more likely to graduate from college?

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up