Helicopter parents—the kind that continue to hover even in college—are one of the most ridiculed figures of twenty-first-century parenting, criticized for creating entitled young adults who boomerang back home. But do involved parents really damage their children and burden universities? In this book, sociologist Laura T. Hamilton illuminates the lives of young women and their families to ask just what role parents play during the crucial college years.
Hamilton vividly captures the parenting approaches of mothers and fathers from all walks of life—from a CFO for a Fortune 500 company to a waitress at a roadside diner. As she shows, parents are guided by different visions of the ideal college experience, built around classed notions of women’s work/family plans and the ideal age to “grow up.” Some are intensively involved and hold adulthood at bay to cultivate specific traits: professional helicopters, for instance, help develop the skills and credentials that will advance their daughters’ careers, while pink helicopters emphasize appearance, charm, and social ties in the hopes that women will secure a wealthy mate. In sharp contrast, bystander parents—whose influence is often limited by economic concerns—are relegated to the sidelines of their daughter’s lives. Finally, paramedic parents—who can come from a wide range of class backgrounds—sit in the middle, intervening in emergencies but otherwise valuing self-sufficiency above all.
Analyzing the effects of each of these approaches with clarity and depth, Hamilton ultimately argues that successfully navigating many colleges and universities without involved parents is nearly impossible, and that schools themselves are increasingly dependent on active parents for a wide array of tasks, with intended and unintended consequences. Altogether, Parenting to a Degree offers an incisive look into the new—and sometimes problematic—relationship between students, parents, and universities.
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Parenting to a Degree
How Family Matters for College Women's Success
By Laura T. Hamilton
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Five Visions of College
What is the ideal college experience? How much is social and how much is academic? Parents do not all agree. I found five different visions of college that reflect what parents accept as logical labor and marital market strategies for their daughters. These often taken-for-granted assumptions tend to develop among families with similar financial, social, and cultural resources. College is, in part, about producing the right "kind" of woman (or man) for a particular social class. At the same time, mismatches and creative combinations can occur, as not all parents adopt visions of college that fit their current class position.
Below, I detail the categories that I use to describe parents' class locations. The chapter then turns to the five visions of college and their class roots. I describe one vision not represented in my sample. There may be more. I also highlight the strong connection between parents' visions of college and their approaches, identifying a few exceptions. The chapter ends with a discussion of intra-couple disagreement about parenting practices — as well as the rare conflict over visions of college.
Social Class Categories
Upper class, upper-middle class, middle class, lower-middle class, and working class are common class categories in the United States. They take into account experiences with the labor market, which are central to how many social scientists define class. These categories also refer to the cultural components of class — lifestyles, types of consumption, and tastes that create patterned and familiar ways of being among those who share a class location.
I placed families into class categories primarily on the basis of current parental education, occupation, and economic resources. These three measures, in various combinations, are frequently used in research to capture class status. Table 1.1 identifies the characteristics typical of each group, as well as the number and percentage of families in each group.
Upper-class families (15%) were marked by fathers' positions as chief executive or chief financial officers. Most mothers were homemakers. Both parents were at least college educated. These families earned well over the threshold for the 1 percent in the United States (around $525,000 for a household as of 2013). In their communities, they were at the top of both economic and prestige hierarchies. On the East Coast, this required greater wealth and status than in the Midwest. Personal jets, frequent international vacations, and a great distance from necessity characterized upper-class lifestyles.
Upper-middle-class families (41%) included at least one, often two, parents who worked in well-compensated professional fields requiring advanced degrees (e.g., doctors, accountants, administrators, and professors). Money in these families was plentiful but finite. Out-of-state tuition was possible — although, for those who were tenuously upper-middle class, it could exert a strain on family resources. When I use the terms affluent or privileged, I am referring to upper- or upper-middle-class families.
Middle-class families (12%) typically included two college-educated parents. Fathers' jobs were often in middle management (e.g., a tractor company distributor and food factory supervisor) and not as secure of those of the upper-middle class. Mothers were often teachers or in retail management. Middle-class families could be at the top of the class ladder in their in-state towns, but compared to more privileged families at MU, they were closer to the bottom. For this reason, I view the middle class, along with the lower-middle and working classes, as (relatively) less privileged.
Lower-middle-class families (17%) often included parents with some college experience, but both parents did not hold four-year degrees. Fathers were typically in sales management, although a few held better-paying manual positions (e.g., firefighting). Mothers were usually in pink-collar secretarial jobs. Divorce or parental death were common in this category, as well as among the working class, and contributed to a sense of economic constraint.
Working-class families (15%) were characterized by poor economic security. Mothers generally worked low-paying service jobs (e.g., waitressing or retail) and fathers did seasonal manual labor (e.g., highway construction and farming). Work was not consistent. These families had little exposure to higher education, and many were from rural areas. The flagship state university was far outside their realm of experience.
The Ideal College Experience
In my study, five visions of the ideal college experience are represented. These visions incorporate understandings of the primary purpose of the college years, women's future work and family configurations, and expected levels of dependence on parents. Typically, parents shared beliefs with those in their class groups, given similarities in their everyday lives, worldviews, and resources. However, class culture sometimes spread to nearby class groups, and some parents combined disparate elements from their complex class histories into a hybridized view of college.
1. The Career-Building Experience
Seven sets of parents saw college as the career-building years in which life opportunities are forged. As Anna explained, "[College is] a fresh opportunity to become anything you want to be. The whole world is your oyster. Education is just the most ... I'm gonna cry now. I really see education as a marvel. ... It's such a wonderful enriching pathway to accomplish your dreams." These parents wanted to offer their children the chance to demonstrate worth and justify positions in the upper-middle class, via schooling. This vision of college is closest to what many scholars tend to think of higher education as providing — specialized knowledge, skills, and credentials that allow youth to achieve professional security and economic success.
Anna's language suggests that anyone can achieve through higher education. Yet the career-building process is reliant on the intergenerational transmission of class-based resources. Most parents offering this experience had a rich legacy of family post-secondary investment that they passed on to their daughters. As Anna described:
My father was a teacher and then a professor. I'm an educator and now I'm an educational administrator in a school district. In terms of their value system ... [t]hat's our priority. In my own personal life, anytime I've had a challenge with a career or just been stuck, education has just been the pathway for me to deal with things positively.
Not surprisingly, Anna was convinced that hard work in college would secure her daughter's future economic security.
Parents with professional degrees in engineering, medicine, accounting, educational administration, and other specialized fields had an understanding of how to move within the educational system and how to use it for advancement, as well as a belief in its power. The lucrative nature of their careers offered access to money that could smooth the way. Indeed, there was no economic investment that these parents would rather be making.
Women's academic and career success was a norm in these families and modeled in everyday life. As Andrea noted in reference to my career path, "You're going to have your PhD, so what kind of bar does that set for your kids? Where does it end? You set the bar. ... They're going to watch you teach. They're going to watch you research. I think it's just kind of the way it is." Their households offered a version of peer marriage (at least in the realm of work), with two well-educated, high-earning individuals paired together. As Keith would joke, "Andrea is a PhD. I'm ... the least educated [adult] in the family with my MBA!" They expected the same type of partnership for their daughters, as it consolidated the privileges earned by two professionals into one household.
Only two families focused on the career-building experience were located outside the upper-middle class. Brenda's upper-class parents had grown up in the upper-middle class and still maintained these sensibilities. Roger prominently displayed the logo of a moderately ranked southern flagship university, where he received the title of certified professional accountant, on the glass divide of his multi-suite office directly overlooking Central Park. Mary's middle-class parents had come to value higher education through experience teaching at primary and secondary levels. They shared an enthusiasm for schooling and a commitment to helping their daughter achieve her law school dreams.
Parents who adopted this logic were not responding to their daughters' stellar academic records. Most had average students — or else they would have encouraged women to select more prestigious schools. As Steven described of his daughter, "Erica happens to be a very social person. ... She seems to travel with a kind of crowd that's just a little ... more socially active." Anna worried about how Erica would do in college because "in high school she just was not all that motivated." Yet they still sent her out of state to MU for the competitive Business School, believing in her potential.
2. The Social Experience
Rhonda's view of college could not be further from Anna's. As she candidly remarked, "College is the time of your life. I know that you're not supposed to say that to your kids, but I do. [Laura: Really? How come?] Because you don't want them to think that once it's over, then it's not going to be that much fun. College is the time of your life. And I think right after college is too, before you're thirty. I want her to have a good time."
Ten sets of parents, including Rhonda, saw college as an enjoyable social experience and opened their pocketbooks to finance it. The creation of a protected space before the onslaught of adult responsibilities echoes the historical development of childhood, and later adolescence, as years of fun and freedom that parents owe their cherished youth. These parents believed that partying was a central college project — not something that they should, begrudgingly, expect their daughters to do behind their backs. As Walt wistfully noted:
I look back and say it was the best time of my life. ... I'm sure Natasha will look back with fond memories, and that's not just because she got a degree. ... More because of the friendship and the fun time and the experience and the growth she had. I drank a lot so I just figured that was gonna go on. I felt that's just part of it.
When asked whether or not he thought his daughter partied, Tom said matter-of-factly, "That's what it's for. That's what going to school is for." Connie similarly commented, "Pot smoking is something that definitely Abby's been doing for a long time. I completely understand. Everybody explores and does that kind of thing."
Parents' investment in partying was premised on a series of assumptions about how university life is organized. Rick explained, "My own concern was that Nicole get a true experience in college, and that means she goes to parties ... but more importantly that she's safe. At the university, we're able to build a structure around these kids because you know they're going to party. ... They can live within a safety zone." His concerns were heightened in other settings that he viewed as less protective — spring break, for instance.
These parents often handpicked Midwest U specifically for the social experience that it offered. As Alexis described:
We looked at other places [and] applied to a bunch of schools. Hannah is big into the rah-rah scene. She's very social. She loves sports. ... I could never picture her going to a small school. ... She likes to be involved in ... everything. So we saw a college advisor [outside of her high school]. ... [The advisor] said, "I have a great school — what about Midwest U? It's a [major sports conference]. Hannah wanted to go for photography, so it's got a great photography program." I'm like, "Oh my God, Hannah's gonna end up going to MU!" When we left there I came home crying. Because everything about MU was absolutely perfect for Hannah.
Alexis highlights many of the features that appealed to these parents: big-time college sports, lively campuses, an array of not particularly difficult majors, and many ways to belong (e.g., Greek houses and social clubs).
It is possible that parents were accurately reading their children's strengths. They may have adopted this vision, in part, because it fit their daughters. For example, Rhonda described her stereotypical "sorority girl" daughter in this way: "If you say 'party,' Tara says where. ... She is extremely social." I agreed. Tara was focused on having fun. She also displayed low academic motivation. However, a few of their daughters were decidedly non-social and disinterested in mainstream college life. As Cathy told me, Natasha was "very shy. ... I think that paralyzed her socially a bit."
With few exceptions, parents could have nudged their daughters toward a more academic experience but chose not to. Frank explained, "Listen, I would've loved all of [my children] to have been engineers or doctors. But I think ... focusing in on ... the college experience [is important]. If she was going to Harvard, maybe it'd be a different view, but she's not a Harvard kid." While Hannah did not have a stellar record, it was solid — mostly A's and some B's from a well-ranked out-of-state high school. She could have been a good student at a moderately selective university like MU. However, Frank was a CFO for a Fortune 500 company. He and his wife, Alexis, were from generations of wealth. Virtually all of Hannah's cousins and family members qualified for admission to more prestigious colleges. When Hannah did not, Frank decided that a social experience made sense.
Frank understood — even if only intuitively — that fun could be functional. Indeed, for the sons of wealthy elites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it facilitated the building of social networks and the cultivation of social skills and cultural tastes necessary for future success in business or politics. Later, women were incorporated on campus as future wives and mothers, a position reflected in the domestic nature of women's social clubs and majors. Privileged parents often sent their daughters to college primarily to find a husband. This was colloquially known as the "Mrs." degree, or MRS.
At the start of the twenty-first century, Hannah's parents hoped she would eventually marry a man who was a proven success. (As Hannah remarked of her father, "He always says to me, 'Marry rich, marry rich.'") For women, the social experience could hone the traits — charm, fashion sense, attractiveness, and rich network ties — that parents believed would lead to the ideal marriage. The notion that a woman's future should be secured through a mate's earnings and credentials reflects a gender complementary vision of gender relations, whereby a male breadwinner is paired with a female homemaker. This path to economic security is most common among wealthy, white, heterosexual women.
Today the social experience is widely accepted. The Greek party scene, immortalized in the 1978 film Animal House, has been replicated ad nauseam in youth media. MTV made college spring-break parties famous by filming hordes of scantily clad, drunken coeds dancing on beaches around the world. Demand for the perfect party school is reflected in the development and dissemination of numerous ranking systems. Alcohol industries, fashion brands, media conglomerates, local bars and restaurants, and universities benefit from college partying and use it in their marketing campaigns.
Many parents saw the social experience as essential to college. Some felt compelled to provide it, despite more limited means. For example, Barb was a widow, living off of savings. She opted to send Mara to MU instead of an affordable in-state school.
I didn't wanna deny Mara. Believe me, I got a lot of pressure from my family not to send her to MU. Because it cost so much. But I felt like ... those four years are like magic, and they can dictate the way the rest of your life goes. ... It's not like I have the money, really, to do this. I just decided that I would make it work.
This decision made little financial sense, although it was difficult for Barb to see that at the outset. It would drain the families' resources, forcing Mara's little sister to pay her own way at a local school. This family's story reflects the diffusion of the social experience from the upper class, to tenuously upper-middle class, even middle-class parents.
3. The Mobility Experience
At different historical periods, disadvantaged groups have used higher education to improve the living conditions of future generations and combat discrimination based on race, class, gender, and religion. Most accounts have focused on students seeking mobility, potentially on their own. In some cases, however, mobility is a family project. It may even be a parental project, when children do not display their own drive and determination.
Excerpted from Parenting to a Degree by Laura T. Hamilton. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContents Introduction 1. Five Visions of College Part I: Parenting Approaches 2. Helicopters 3. Paramedics 4. Bystanders Part II: Parenting Consequences 5. Funding Fun 6. Predictability or Possibility 7. Failed by the University 8. College Outsourced Methodological Appendix: Studying Parenting Appendix A: Parents and Daughters Acknowledgments Notes References Index
What People are Saying About This
“This book is a page-turner, revealing how daughters’ successful navigation of college so often depends on their parents’ continuing investment of intensive effort, money, connections, and knowledge. Parents’ varied visions and approaches, Hamilton vividly shows, often reproduce their own experiences and, in doing so, reproduce—or deepen—class inequalities. Parenting to a Degree is an outstanding contribution to scholarly work and should be used in today’s pressing policy debates about inequality in higher education.”
“Marshaling insights from the parents of a cohort of young women moving through a public research university, Parenting to a Degree shows—in graphic, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking detail—how substantial parental investments are in what we often imagine is the ideal four-year college experience. It makes clear that persistence in college and early forays into the labor market are joint ventures between young people and their families, and that gender and class identities strongly shape how adults decide to support their children. These are pivotal contributions to our understanding of American higher education.”
“Parenting to a Degree offers a transformative account of why and how college parenting matters. A skillful and caring interviewer, Hamilton reports on how social class, gender, and cultural expectations shape parents’ varied involvement with their children’s education. A pioneering contribution to the field of education.”