For every two years of college, 1.7% of students can expect a parent to pass away. This statistic, from Balk, Walker and Baker’s “Prevalence And Severity Of College Student Bereavement Examined In A Randomly Selected Sample,” shows how common parent death is among college students. In numbers alone, 1.7% of students translates to roughly 360,000 college students in the U.S. over a two-year period.

Compounding this astounding rate of loss and heartbreak is the fact that losing a parent can effect educational attainment. 

Research from UC Berkeley (Gertler, Levine and Ames, 2004) illustrates that there is a connection between child bereavement and a parent and educational attainment.

With regard to the death of a parent before the age of 18, it can negatively affect child educational outcomes: There is some indirect empirical evidence to support the prediction that children’s outcomes, including educational achievement, are adversely affected by a parent’s death. A number of studies report positive correlation of child out- comes with family resources, such as income, education, assets, and time. Research in the United States has found that parental income has an important positive effect on educational attainment [Hill and Duncan (1987) and Haveman and Wolfe (1995) review this literature; contra see Mayer (1997)], and that achievement in school is positively linked to parental investments of time (Datcher-Loury, 1988; Steelman & Mercy, 1980; Leibowitz, 1974).

More specific to college, a 2011 study asked about primary shocks that could cause a student to withdraw from college. 18.4% indicated ‘death or illness of a family member’ (Pleskac, Fandre, Mettitt, Schmitt and Oswald, 2011).

Death of a parent in college, however, isn’t the only way in which educational attainment is affected by child bereavement of a parent. A national survey (Tiller/CZC General Population Survey) found one in 9 (11%) loses at least one parent or guardian before age 20. When comparing those who lost a parent before age 20 and those who did not, the survey found that those who lose a parent before age 20 are more likely to have have only completed high school, and are less likely to have obtained a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree.

ACHA-NCHA II instrument shows one of the reasons that college can be interrupted by bereavement. Simply put, the loss of a parent or friend is difficult to handle emotionally and negatively affects schoolwork (ACHA-NCHA II, Fall 2013).

  • Within the last 12 months, the proportion of students surveyed reported that the following have been traumatic or very difficult to handle:
    • Death of a family member or friend: 15.7%
  • Within the last 12 months, students reported the following factors affecting their individual academic performance:
    • Death of a friend or family member: 5.7%

A similar finding is in Servaty-Seib and Hamilton’s 2006 work, which found that loss correlates with a significant decrease in student GPA during the semester of loss. Such findings provide empirical support for the assertion that bereaved students are at risk for declined academic performance.

Sadly, many grieving college students do not get the support they need (Fajgenbaum, 2007). This is in part due to college administration’s lack of awareness of the issue, underestimation of the breadth of the problem and a lack of proper institutional and peer responses to college student bereavement. The effects of this lack of support can be devastating and widespread. Some examples include depression, academic failure, social isolation, sleep problems, and an increased vulnerability to disease and eating disorders. “Due to the prevalence of college student bereavement and the widespread inattention to the effects of such losses on young people during this stressful life transition, college student bereavement has been referred to as a “silent epidemic” that negatively impacts the bereaved academically, socially, and developmentally”(Fajgenbaum, 2007).

Every student, including the bereaved, deserves the support they need to reach their educational goals. If you (or someone you know) happen to lose a parent or friend and are struggling with your bereavement, please go to the Students of AMF website. There you can find a host of resources that can be helpful in your time of need, including local chapters that can support you. In the meantime, we also suggest talking to your college about how to start a Students of AMF chapter and organizing on campus to increase institutional responses to support grieving students.