It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It has been well-documented that the generation of schoolchildren who went to college in the last decade were raised by “helicopter parents” (who helped their children do everything) and “snowplow parents” (who removed all barriers in front of their children). The question was what would happen when they left their childhood home and went to college.
A new study attempts to answer that question. It shows that hovering parents don’t stop once their kids go off to college, and that’s particularly true for affluent and upper middle-class parents. Such parents continue to help their children in college, the study found, because they “know the potential to make a misstep — and the costs of doing so — may be higher than before.”
The study published this month in the journal Sociology of Education by three social scientists — Laura Hamilton of the University of California at Merced, Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia and Kelly Nielsen of the University of California at San Diego — followed a group of female students (and their parents) from 41 families. The students lived on the same dorm floor at an unnamed prominent Midwest public university (some of Hamilton’s research on this same group of women was featured in her 2013 book with Elizabeth A. Armstrong called “Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality”).
As states have slashed their spending on colleges in recent years, public universities have become more “receptive” to the needs of affluent families, the authors noted. These schools have aggressively recruited out-of-state students, who pay more but whose parents also have higher expectations of services for their children.
On this dorm floor, the wealthiest students — defined as being in the top 15 to 20 percent of U.S. incomes — were all from out of state. In consultation with their parents, they chose to live in this dorm because of the popularity of its social scene. Their parents knew that college was about much more than just academics; it was also about the network that students connected to and that often started on the dorm floor. Meanwhile, all the middle- and working-class students on the floor were from in state and were assigned there by chance.
The academic and social experiences of the students on the floor differed greatly — and the students’ parents played a big role in why. The authors divided the parents into two categories. One included the affluent parents, who served as “college concierges,” using their resources to provide their kids with academic, social and career support, and access to exclusive university services.
The other group included the middle-income and working-class parents, some of whom didn’t go to college. They were the “outsiders” who mistakenly assumed the university would provide the necessary resources for their children. But their kids were often excluded from specialized academic programs, such as honors colleges housed within the larger university that have smaller classes and top-notch faculty. They were left out because they didn’t have the grades, test scores or recommendations before they arrived at college.
In many cases, no one told the outsiders while they were in high school about the opportunities available in college, and once those students were on campus, advisers didn’t help them navigate their undergraduate careers (and sometimes, gave them bad advice that led to delays in graduating or poor career choices).
The experience of these students highlighted a truth evident in national statistics: Whether a student gets a degree depends almost entirely on how much their parents earn. Put simply, rich kids graduate and poor kids don’t. Only one in four college freshmen from the bottom half of the income distribution get a bachelor’s degree by 24. But 90 percent of freshmen from families in the top income quartile finish their degree.
At this Midwest university, the study found that wealthier parents talked and visited with their kids often, advised them to get tutors when needed (and paid for them) and directed them to the nationally ranked business school at this university, which offered smaller classes and career help that other majors didn’t get. The parents even helped manage their kids’ social lives, encouraging them to join sororities and advising them how to navigate college parties (only accept drinks from friends, they were told).
One example in the paper illustrates the real-life consequences of the class divide between the two groups of young women. One from an affluent family was accepted into the dental school of her choice after college because her parents had reviewed applications years earlier and knew what she needed to do to get in. Meanwhile, another woman on the same floor from a poorer family also wanted to go to dental school, but her parents didn’t know what was required — such as job shadowing — nor did they realize her slipping grades would disqualify her from getting admitted. She ended up as a dental assistant making $11 an hour, a job that didn’t even require a bachelor’s degree.
Eventually, the women on the floor became part of the national statistics on college graduation rates by income. Seventy-five percent of the wealthiest students graduated in four years, compared to only 40 percent of the low-income students. And the lowest-income students? None of those whose families earned less than $40,000 a year ended up with degrees.
It turns out that what students do in college matters as much to career and life success as getting a degree, recent studies have shown. That includes the majors they choose, the activities they participate in, the internships they secure. Parents who went to college know this and help their kids navigate the shadow curriculum that exists alongside the more formal pathway through college.
We shouldn’t belittle parents for being “college concierges” and wanting the best for their children (at least in moderation). Rather, colleges need to provide a similar lift for students who didn’t get college advice in high school or support at home.
Several selective and elite colleges and universities are making attempts to become more welcoming to financially needy students, embarrassed at how the schools have become havens for wealthy and privileged students in recent years (see chart above). But simply providing more aid or more help in getting admitted isn’t enough, as this new study shows. Schools also need to put in place programs — and pay for them — that help middle- and lower-income students find the right mentors, get spots in study-abroad programs and internships, and navigate the often confusing and tricky journey to graduation.