Parents and College Women's Success

By Claudia Buchmann

Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success by Laura T. Hamilton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

In Parenting to a Degree, author Laura Hamilton provides a richly detailed analysis of the relationships between young college women and their parents to reveal how parenting matters for college outcomes. She argues that financial, emotional, and logistical parental support has become a requirement for the educational and professional success of students at mid-tier public universities like “Midwest U,” her research site. Hamilton draws on fifty-nine detailed interviews she conducted with mothers and fathers from forty-one families whose daughters started college in 2004 and lived on the same floor of a “party” dormitory. These interviews were conducted four years into college, around the time of graduation, when parents could reflect on their parenting approaches during the college years. They included topics such as financial, emotional, and academic support; frequency and types of communication with their daughters; and perceptions of their daughters’ college experiences.

Part 1 of the book deftly weaves together these interview data to develop five visions of college and accompanying parenting approaches (“professional helicopters,” “pink helicopters,” “paramedics,” “supportive bystanders,” and “total bystanders”). Part 2 assesses the consequences of these parenting styles, focusing on women’s academic records, persistence, postcollege employment, and financial independence as well as parents’ satisfaction with their daughters’ college experiences. The book concludes by arguing that colleges and universities have outsourced many of their responsibilities to parents as a direct result of the privatization that, in turn, will deepen class inequalities. The final chapter offers policy solutions to help level class inequalities associated with the parenting differences revealed in the research.

A unique strength of the book is its ability to illuminate how parents’ social class and beliefs about gender shape their parenting practices. Hamilton notes that the parents’ class histories are “messy” and “marked by cross-class marriage, financial emergencies, divorce and death, and rapid upward mobility.” The detailed portrayal of diverse approaches adds valuable complexity to our understanding of social class differences in parenting. In welcome contrast with prior research, it reveals the broad brushstrokes of class distinctions while at the same time laying bare nuances and ambiguities: parenting styles sometimes cut across class boundaries or do not fit cleanly into class locations. Through this approach, we come to understand how the variations in parental involvement deepen inequalities in college experiences and outcomes. Students with highly involved and affluent parents tended to thrive in college and move smoothly into adulthood and the labor market thereafter; those whose parents were comparatively uninvolved and resource-strapped often experienced a much rockier road.

As with any ethnography, the detailed focus on a small group of individuals necessarily limits the generalizability of the findings. The author readily acknowledges that the sample represents a slim slice of American parents: “This is not a comprehensive book about parenting through the late teens to early twenties. Nor is it a generic account of post-secondary parenting, if such a thing could exist.” Indeed, it is a highly specific sample of white parents of daughters attending a mid-tier public university in the Midwest who live on the same floor of a party dorm. Hamilton acknowledges the highly specific nature of the sample early in the book, but she might have considered its limitations more often throughout. Greater reflection on how the findings might be quite different for different groups of students or at different institutions would have been valuable.

The final chapters assess who is to blame for the negative outcomes experienced by some students, particularly those from lower-class backgrounds, and provides possible solutions to help reduce class differences in these outcomes. Hamilton acknowledges that students’ low grades, increased time to degree, high levels of debt, or failure to complete a degree are attributable in part to lack of parental involvement, but she places greater blame on the institution itself. Interview data drawn primarily from the least involved (bystander) parents show how some felt betrayed by the institution for various reasons: because it promoted a diversionary party scene, provided inadequate counseling, offered inappropriate majors, or offered no financial assistance to students. Taking these parents’ perceptions at face value, Hamilton concludes “MU directed students away from highly pragmatic, vocational, and mostly-traditionally gendered majors they envisioned” and that “the organizational infrastructure at MU nudged women in this [party scene] direction.” Unfortunately, systematic evidence for these assertions is lean. Interviews with actors representing MU or analysis of university materials or services beyond the casual mention would have provided a solid foundation of evidence and made these assertions more convincing. At minimum, university administrators might have been presented with the interview data and been invited to respond. After all, the least involved parents likely have partial views of the institution’s approaches to advising and supporting students. In an otherwise rigorous analysis of the relationship between students, their parents, and the university, the university perspective is notably absent. As a result, the policy solutions also sound a bit hollow.

Of course, no book can do it all; Parenting to a Degree succeeds in offering an intriguing argument about how the privatization of higher education may lead to greater inequality for the students attending public universities like Midwest U. It is less persuasive in demonstrating that the institution is the primary source of this problem. But in this regard, the book provides much fodder for future scholarship to interrogate these claims and the degree to which they apply more broadly to American colleges and universities. Thus, this book will undoubtedly join the ranks of recent high-profile books raising important questions and provoking debates about the future and mission of American higher education. Hamilton’s accessible and eloquent writing makes the book a pleasure to read. Beyond those in the academy, parents and students will gain valuable insights as they reflect on their own parenting approaches and college experiences.  

Claudia Buchmann is professor and chair of sociology at Ohio State University. She is coauthor of The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools (2013). Her e-mail address is buchmann.4@osu.edu.

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