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.