As study after study on higher education makes its way into public discourse, parents could be forgiven for thinking that no matter what they do, they'll be doing the wrong thing. Recent research out of the University of California – Merced concludes that the more parents help their children financially when it comes to college tuition, the more the children's college grades are likely to suffer.
The impact on grades doesn't just appear for families who cover college costs completely. Achievement appears to decline regardless of if the contribution is measured in absolute terms or as a share of total college expenses.
Paradoxically, children of richer parents do go to college and graduate at higher rates than their poorer peers. So, at first glance, it would appear that having a well-to-do family – or at least parents or guardians who are in a position to save for college and help with tuition and other costs – would give students a definite leg up. But not so fast. According to "More is More or More is Less? Parent Financial Investments During College," which was published this month in American Sociological Review, the amount of assistance provided negatively correlated with grades.
According to lead author Laura Hamilton, the effect was detectable in all four-year schools.
The negative impact on grades was less at elite institutions than at other private, expensive, out-of-state colleges. The higher graduation rate of students whose parents paid their way is not surprising, she said, since many students leave college for financial reasons. Dr. Hamilton suggested that students who get a blank check from their parents may not take their education as seriously as others. She became intrigued with this possibility years ago, after spending a year living in a college dormitory and observing the students, then following them through graduation and, eventually, interviewing their parents.
It is difficult not to feel some measure of sympathy for parents when analyzing the study's findings. After all, affording college is one of the main preoccupations for families from almost the time of birth of their first child. Yet even though having the financial means to send children to college does improve their chances of obtaining a degree, it could still prove to be a poor investment when compared against the grades the students graduate with.
"There were some affluent families who thought their children were spoiled and didn't pay the whole cost, and there were some families who had scrimped and saved and borrowed from family members and taken out loans," she said. "And the affluent families aren't hurt the most by the lower grades, because they had the connections to call the head of NBC or the N.F.L. and get their child a job. It's more of a problem for the middle-class parents, who worked hard to pay the college costs, used up their retirement funds and are out of money by graduation time."