A few days after dropping off her youngest child at college, Andrea got a phone call. The wounds in her daughter’s mouth from a recent wisdom-tooth surgery had gone septic. Andrea drove there immediately, located an oral surgeon in town, booked a room at the university hotel, and put her daughter to bed to recover. The next morning, Andrea went to her daughter’s classes, taking notes on her behalf. It was important to Andrea, a professor, and her husband, an MBA, that their daughter head into the first semester of college without missing a beat: A future dental career required four years of a stellar undergraduate academic record.
At the same time, another parent faced a different type of problem. Alexis had handpicked her daughter’s new university specifically for its Greek life, big-time sports, and array of not particularly challenging majors. She and her husband, a CFO of a major Fortune 500 company, were intent on giving their daughter the ideal social experience in college. But when she got there, she seemed not to hit her stride. Alexis blamed it on a working-class roommate who “didn’t ever want to go out [and] meet people”—and told her daughter, in no uncertain terms, to change roommates. Alexis also shipped bags of designer clothes to help her child fit in with affluent sorority members.
Both Andrea and Alexis are examples of “helicopter parents,” defined by their hovering and readiness with supplies, assistance, and guidance. Their interventions were costly—requiring time, financial reserves, social savvy, comfort with authority figures, and knowledge of higher education—though they had different purposes. While Andrea was a focused on her daughter’s human capital—the skills, credentials, and knowledge that often lead to career success and economic security—Alexis was invested in her daughter’s social and extracurricular activities, consumption, and sorority status. Her husband explicitly told their daughter to “marry rich” in the years after college.
I had the chance to observe these parents—and many others—from 2004 to 2009, when I followed 41 families as their children moved through a public flagship university. (As is typical practice in sociology research, the name of the university will remain anonymous—but it is representative of a typical experience for many public-university students across the U.S.) Parents of college students are rarely studied. However, many U.S. universities, particularly those lacking the deep pockets and extensive resources of elite privates, have come to rely on parents to fill numerous financial, advisory, and support functions.
My focus on parents of daughters was not incidental, as today the majority of college students are women; they enroll in and complete college at higher rates than men. The university these women attended has increasingly catered to out-of-state families who are willing to pay full tuition and board in exchange for a degree from a “name” school. And while the number of families I studied is small, I made up for it with depth of knowledge: All the students started college in same residence hall, where I observed them during their first year, after which I interviewed them every year for five years. As the women approached graduation, I also interviewed both their mothers and fathers.
Most—but not all—of the parents in my sample fell neatly into several categories. About two-fifths were “helicopter” parents like Andrea and Alexis, regarded in the media as among the most reviled figures of 21st-century parenting—pesky interlopers who test the patience of school officials, meddle with university affairs, and raise a generation of “coddled,” “entitled,” and “under-constructed” youth.
Yet intensive parenting is, in many ways, a logical response to the harsh risks facing young people during college and early adulthood. Increasing income inequality, high rates of young-adult unemployment, and a decline in stable and well-paying entry-level jobs loom threateningly in the foreground. Declines in state and federal support for higher education, coupled with rising administrative costs in a complex regulatory environment, have led to skyrocketing tuition. Additionally, the sheer diversity of academic and social options, particularly at large public universities, makes it easy for college students to make costly mistakes. Involved parents provide insurance against risk.
Professional-oriented helicopter parents like Andrea left nothing to chance—she began reviewing the dental graduate-school application process before college even began, and ensured that her daughter acquired the right experiences to secure a spot in a top institution. When a wealthy boyfriend nearly caused her daughter to fail organic chemistry, Andrea gently nudged him out of the picture by encouraging her daughter to focus on academics and friends instead. Dental school became a parental project—as her husband noted, “I’m happy because the way we did it worked out in terms of her being admitted to the graduate programs she wanted. I think the decisions we made were the right decisions.” Like Andrea’s daughter, all of the daughters in what I call the “professional-helicopter parent” group graduated from the flagship and all but one moved into professional careers or graduate school.
Social-life-oriented helicopter parents like Alexis—what I call “pink helicopters”—took a less academically intensive tact: They invested resources to enable their children to have the “best years of their lives.” Alexis’s daughter had a better GPA than most pink helicopters’ daughters, who hovered at a 3.0 or below. But, like many of them, she was gearing for a media career in sports marketing or communications—jobs that focused more on prior job experience and social connections than grades. Thankfully, her parents had this covered. During college they secured her several internships with a major media studio. After college, her father tapped his networks again, landing her a position paying $60,000 annually, in a company that was otherwise laying off workers. They put her up in a spacious two-bedroom apartment in New York City, which she shared with a sorority friend, and covered her portion of the $2,400 monthly rent. For the students parented by pink helicopters, graduation was universal—but only the most wealthy and well-connected parents could help their daughters secure post-college employment.
Another group of parents, whom I refer to as “paramedics,” played an active, but more hands-off role in their child’s college life. Knowledgeable about how college works, yet valuing their child’s autonomy, they allowed small mistakes as learning experiences, only swooping in to offer emergency care when little missteps blossomed into big crises. Paramedics were either affluent parents with humble roots or low-income parents with exposure to higher education. They were able to accurately assess and remedy serious threats, such a failure to make friends, a pattern of low grades, or growing antipathy. Often this required knowledge of how college works, willingness to intervene, and the ability to provide targeted cash infusions that allowed women to clear hurdles. Paramedics’ daughters tended to step off campus into near-immediate and emotional self-sufficiency. But sometimes these parents arrived on scene too late to offer a “fix”—consequently, a few women failed to graduate.
A third of the parents I observed were far less actively involved—and the outcome for these families could be bleak. Forced to the sidelines of their daughters’ lives at college, these parents were “bystanders” as they lacked the financial resources and educational experience necessary to help. As one such parent put it, “I didn’t know how things worked … never going to college myself.” Most worked long hours in manual labor or low-paid service positions, and hoped their kids would not be obliged to do the same. Another explained, “If we were attorneys, we’d maybe lead ’em down that path and know all the ins and outs about it, but we’re not. I’m a firefighter and I told [all of my kids], ‘You really don’t wanna be a firefighter.’”
Bystander-parents’ daughters faced two major problems. One was graduation. About half received no parental aid, and even sent money home; not one of these women graduated from the flagship in four years. Most found that leaving for a more affordable school was necessary. The other issue was employment. Their parents had assumed that a four-year degree guaranteed mobility; however, a year out of college, only one graduate had a job requiring a Bachelor’s degree, and some had as much as $50,000 in debt. As one father described, “It was a little deceptive in what [the university] said and then what they produced.”
Why does educational and professional success today—as my observations of these families suggest—seem to require moderate-to-extensive financial, emotional, and logistical parental support, through college and the transition to the labor force?
In large part, it reflects the shifting relationship between families and the university in the U.S. in the past century. Slowly after WWI and rapidly after WWII, many public universities were virtually free, as the government offered universities the resources to help families battle economic depression, poverty, and marginalization on the basis of race, class, gender, and religion. However, in the 1980s, the government shifted financial aid largely from grants to loans, making student debt the primary financier of higher education. Legislation beneficial to for-profit institutions siphoned funds from the public system, and state and local funding for public universities decreased significantly—causing them to function more like their private counterparts. Universities entered a period of heavy and expensive administrative growth as they faced new and intense accountability pressures. Without the supportive buffer of the state, families eventually came to absorb many of these costs.
Universities now rely, in part, on parents, particularly those with money, time, and connections, to meet their basic needs. Solvency is the most pressing one—net tuition now accounts for 47 percent of all public higher-education revenue, so schools necessarily prefer applicants who don’t require financial aid. Most public institutions, like the one I studied, are not need-blind, and take student funding into account. They particularly value out-of-state and international families who pay top dollar.
However, paying parents typically bring more than funds alone. They often help promote the university; conduct admissions interviews; interface with donating alumni; assist with their own students’ emotional, cognitive, and physical needs; and help place graduates (both related and not) in valuable internships and jobs. Competition to attract these parents is stiff—and administrators’ complaints about parental “meddling” are now tempered with interest in a “partnership relationship” with parents. As such, four-year schools structure their classes, activities, and living options around traditional students and expect parents to do the work of maintaining them, even as the financial, physical, and emotional costs of doing so continue to escalate.
But the new family-university partnership exacts a toll. Parents are pushed to extend major parenting responsibilities further into their own life course than they might ever have imagined, doing heavy financial lifting for their children at the same time they are supposed to be building their own financial security. And yet many parents in the middle-to-upper strata of the class structure readily accept these tasks, believing that a college experience is something that “good” parents offer. The emotional demands of intensive parenting put a strain on marriages and careers, especially for women who, as my study suggests, often do the lion’s share of this work. There is also some truth to the notion that the helicoptered children are slow to adapt to adulthood; daughters in the paramedic group, unlike their helicopter counterparts, were able to do things like balance their checkbooks, make decisions about their careers, and manage friendships without calling on their parents for help.
University outsourcing to parents only increases the salience of family background for post-college success, exacerbating existing class inequalities—and racial disparities. The promise of social mobility—once at the heart of the public university mission—is slipping away. Well-resourced parents, like Andrea and Alexis, are advantaged when parental labor is built into the very form and function of the university. They can simply out-fund, out-strategize, and out-network the competition. With each year that the parenting arms-race escalates, young people from modest means lose a little more ground.
This article has been adapted from Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success.