There is a new study being released in the American Sociological Review in February 2013 that has already received a lot of press, and may be causing college parents concern. The report, by University of California – Merced sociology professor Laura T. Hamilton is titled, More is More or More is Less? Parental Financial Investments During College.
The headlines in most of the articles about this report claim that the more that parents contribute financially to their student’s college education, the worse their student will do in school as measured by cumulative GPA (grade point average). Our concern is that some college parents may not have the opportunity to read beyond the headlines to Dr. Hamilton’s secondary finding and conclusion. This study also determined that students whose parents contribute to their education had a greater chance of completing college within five years. And the researcher’s conclusion is that student success may have less to do with the amount of the financial contribution and more to do with the communication between students and parents about responsibilities and expectations.
According to Hamilton, the negative effect of parental financial support on college GPA is modest, but students “may be staying out of trouble but dialing down academic efforts.” In other words, students whose parents are paying for the majority of their expenses may not feel as vested in their education and may be willing to “get by.” She adds, “Children may direct more effort to school when they personally feel the economic costs of poor performance.” These findings seem surprising to many parents because they seem to counter the assumption that the more that parents do for their students, the better those students will do. Other sources of funding – grants, scholarships, or work-study – did not appear to affect GPA.
Hamilton’s secondary finding, however, is encouraging. According to her study, students who received financial support from parents had an increased likelihood of completing college within five years. One reason may be simply that students who receive no parental help may drop out of school because they cannot afford to continue. Students who received no parental aid during their first year of school had a 56.4% probability that they would graduate. Students who received $12,000 in their first year had a 65.2% probability of completing school.
During difficult financial times with rising college tuition costs, the headlines about this study can be alarming to parents if they are not aware of the researcher’s conclusions and recommendations. According to another study conducted by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, nearly two-thirds of 19-22 year old students receive financial help from parents. And nearly 56% of parents are paying more for college than they had expected to pay when their first child was born. Most parents are helping to fund their student’s education, and they do not want to hear that support may be hindering them.
Dr. Hamilton does not recommend that parents reduce their financial support or withdraw it altogether. She does suggest, however, that the problem is not the gift of money, but how it is given. She recommends linking financial support to goals, expectations, responsibility and accountability. “Make it clear this is their job.” This study suggests that students who received the lowest grades had parents who paid tuition or gave money, but never discussed the student’s responsibilities. This negative effect could be offset with better communication about clear expectations about grades and progress.
Hamilton recommends that parents discuss with their students how much college is costing and what percentage of that cost parents can reasonably support. She recommends that parents expect students to contribute toward their education, even if it is largely a symbolic amount, by requiring them to have a small part-time job or work-study. (Other studies have found that students who work up to ten hours per week generally suffer no ill effects to their grades.) Grants and scholarships from the college usually come with an expectation that students maintain a certain grade point average to continue to receive funds. Hamilton suggests that parents might set similar expectations for students.
Hamilton notes in her article the results of another study regarding student study behavior. Many students, she says, spend approximately 28 hours per week in class and studying. That, she says, is less than most high school students spend in school. Those same students spend approximately 41 hours per week on social and recreational activities. This is the reason that conversation between parents and students about academic expectations might be helpful.
We think this is an important study for parents to consider. Appropriate parent-student communication is often the key to college success, and this study supports this. However, parents need to be sure to consider carefully the total information which this study provides. The most important value of this study may be the mandate that parents talk to their students about the cost of education in the context of student responsibility and accountability.