By TAMAR LEWIN
Published: January 14, 2013
Parents saving for college costs, take heed: A new national study has found that the more college money parents provide — whether in absolute terms or as a share of total costs — the lower their children’s college grades.
Students from wealthy families are more likely than those from poor families to go to college, and those whose parents pay their way are more likely to graduate. But according to “More Is More or More Is Less? Parent Financial Investments During College,” a study by Laura Hamilton, a sociology professor at the University of California, Merced, greater parental contributions were linked with lower grades across all kinds of four-year institutions.
“It’s a modest effect, not big enough to make the kid flunk out of college,” said Dr. Hamilton, whose study was published in this month’s American Sociological Review. “But it was surprising because everybody has always assumed that the more you give, the better your child does.”
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.
“Oddly, a lot of the parents who contributed the most money didn’t get the best returns on their investment,” she said. “Their students were more likely to stay and graduate, but their G.P.A.’s were mediocre at best, and some I didn’t see study even once. I wondered if that was nationally true, which led me to this quantitative study, which found that it is.”
For the new study, Dr. Hamilton used three federal data sets — the Baccalaureate and Beyond study, the Beginning Postsecondary Students Study and the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study — and compared parental contributions and grades, controlling for parental socioeconomic status.
“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.”
Dr. Hamilton found that the students with the lowest grades were those whose parents paid for them without discussing the students’ responsibility for their education. Parents could minimize the negative effects, she said, by setting clear expectations about grades and progress toward graduation.
“Ultimately, it’s not bad to fund your children,” she said. “My kids are little, but I plan to pay for them — after we talk about how much it costs, and what grades I expect them to achieve.”