I moved into the dorms (now called residency halls) at BYU when I was 8 years old. No, I wasn’t a child prodigy; my dad was finishing a master’s degree, and the whole family lived on campus at Heritage Halls for the summer. I always felt like that time had a profound effect on my future education. And it turns out I was right: Research shows that when fathers instill a love of learning and stress the importance of college to their daughters, these girls are not only more likely to attend institutions of higher learning, but to graduate and flourish.
Not surprisingly, the father’s education level has a significant influence on the choices of his daughters. According to our data, the higher the educational attainment of the father, the more likely the daughter will follow in his footsteps. When I was a teen, my father decided to pursue a Ph.D., and we returned to Provo (not the dorms — thank goodness). This was a sacrifice for all of us. I missed my friends in Idaho, finances were tight and my mom spent most of her days that second summer typing up my father’s dissertation on an old Smith-Corona. Watching all this, I came to believe that education is not just linked to one’s job, but education is the key to serving God, the community and family. It’s no surprise that I felt compelled to constantly seek out learning and spend my days doing research on how to get others better access to education.
But dads don’t have to move their families into a dorm to start daughters on a college-bound path. Small acts like reading to her, helping with her homework or a science project and simply showing up at her school events are all investments in her future academic success. Even non-academic interactions can help: We found that planting a garden together, teaching her to change a tire, baking a cake — any situation where a father can create learning experiences — can make a difference.
On the flip side, participants in our Utah statewide study whose fathers didn’t stress the importance of college were more likely to have dropped out or never attended. One woman observed that her dad “thinks that education is important, but college is a waste of money. He wants us to get paid well but is not willing to help pay for us to get an education.” She dropped out after one semester. Graduating from college won’t guarantee lifelong success, but statistically, women who graduate are more likely to be healthy, financially secure and contribute to society.
No matter where fathers are at in this process, they need to know that what they say and do matters to their daughters and can have lasting impact on their success. You can start by simply sharing something you love with your daughter. Take her hiking. Tell her what you do at work (most kids have no clue). Let her know you believe in her. Open a college fund (my529 in Utah is amazing) and match what she saves. There are endless ways to set her on a path of learning that don’t involve living in a dorm.