Most people would generally consider a student getting money from his or her parents while in college to be a good thing—after all, most traditional-age college students tend to have few resources of their own and additional money from Mom and Dad might help students work fewer hours (generally considered a good thing). But a new paper in the American Sociological Review by Laura Hamilton, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California-Merced, challenges this assumption. In a paper titled “More Is More or More Is Less? Parental Financial Investments During College” (abstract here), she finds that parental financial assistance increases the likelihood of graduation, but is associated with lower student GPAs.
As a sociologist, Hamilton came to the project with the perspective that more financial resources are a good thing for a student due to the mere availability of resources and social capital. I don’t start from that perspective—and instead look at what students can do with the available funds. But I am also concerned that no-strings-attached gifts from parents might not be a good thing, since they may lack the performance requirements of merit-based financial aid. Additionally, the need for additional funds might reflect the inability of a student from a middle- to upper-income family to secure merit-based aid.
Hamilton uses two old, workhorse datasets in her analysis—the Baccalaureate and Beyond Study (B&B) of students who graduated in 1993 and the Beginning Postsecondary Students Study (BPS) of students who began college in 1990. She uses the B&B to focus on cumulative GPA at graduation as an outcome, which has two main limitations: we don’t know the relationship between parental assistance on dropout or changes in college major which may be associated with GPA. Because of that, she uses the BPS to look at graduation rates. Neither dataset is perfect or free of issues of causality, but it’s not a bad starting point (the datasets have to be appropriate to get into a top-tier journal like ASR).
The positive relationship between parental assistance and graduation rates won’t raise many eyebrows, but her claim that among students who get to graduation, those with higher levels of parental assistance have lower GPAs is more controversial. My biggest concern with the article is that appears that more help from the parents allows some marginal students to stay in school who otherwise would not have appeared in the dataset. If some of the 2.0 GPA students with parental assistance would have dropped out, there may not be differences in the GPAs of students who successfully completed college. Because of this, I have to take the finding on GPAs with a grain of salt.
On another note, this article also can teach scholars quite a bit about how to interact with the media. The mixed conclusion gives the education press and the general public an opportunity to run with a provocative conclusion—parents shouldn’t give their kids money (if they can) because they might just slack off. The headline in today’s Inside Higher Ed piece on the article (“Spoiled Children”) is an example of how research findings can be spun to get more eyeballs. While the media should run more reasonable headlines, it is the responsibility of academics to call out the education press when they play these sorts of games.