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.
Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success.