Parenting to a Degree How Family Matters for College Women's Success
by Laura T. Hamilton
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-18336-7 | Paper: 978-0-226-18353-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-18367-1
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.001.0001


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. 


Laura T. Hamilton is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is coauthor of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality


“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.”
— Mitchell Stevens, author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites

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.”
— Viviana A. Zelizer, author of Economic Lives.

“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.”
— Naomi Gerstel, coauthor of Unequal Time

“Book of the week. . . . Nothing beats a piece of good empirical sociology, as the data suck you in and tell their own compelling story. Writing well in this style is an art form, and few people manage to pull it off. In Parenting to a Degree, Laura Hamilton does so beautifully. . . . Parenting beyond the age of 18 matters more than ever because how parents approach their children’s undergraduate years shapes the life chances of young adults, and can set them on markedly different trajectories. But what this study also reveals is the extent to which universities depend, in part, on the availability of parental support and labour to ensure that students successfully complete their degrees. Hamilton ably demonstrates that we too often see degree success as based on individual merit when, in reality, it is driven by the nature of the partnerships between families and the universities, and that too often students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds find themselves struggling to make their way with the least help.”
— Times Higher Education

“By the end of the project, Hamilton had acquired a deep understanding of family dynamics and attitudes, and powerful insights into why some students succeed while others fail, and the part that parents play in shaping outcomes. . . . Her analysis is nuanced enough to avoid determinism. And there is real class diversity here. . . . Hamilton skillfully draws out the telling similarities and differences between the parents within each group. . . . Hamilton’s book demonstrates the value of zooming in close in order to gain wider insight.”
— Times Literary Supplement

“[A] richly detailed analysis of the relationships between young college women and their parents to reveal how parenting matters for college outcomes….A unique strength of the book is its ability to illuminate how parents’ social class and beliefs about gender shape their parenting practices….[T]his book will undoubtedly join the ranks of recent high-profile books raising important questions and provoking debates about the future and mission of American higher education. Hamilton’s accessible and eloquent writing makes the book a pleasure to read. Beyond those in the academy, parents and students will gain valuable insights as they reflect on their own parenting approaches and college experiences.”

"Laura T. Hamilton’s thought-provoking book Parenting to a Degree explores how some parents get way too involved in their children’s college careers. . . . this book is a good read. It sheds light on the way we live now, at least for some people in the United States, and it connects the macrolevel of social stratification to the microlevel of the lives of individual people and the inner workings of family relations."
— American Journal of Sociology


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.003.0000
[college, parenting, helicopters, social class, gender, academic outcomes, career outcomes]
Long after parents physically disperse from campus, parents and postsecondary institutions remain of high importance to one another. In fact, social, political, and economic conditions have combined to produce the highly involved college “helicopter” parent, who is now sought after by many colleges and universities. This chapter sets up one of the central questions of the book: What parenting approaches advantage their college-attending children? Is too much involvement as damaging as the media portrays? The chapter introduces the longitudinal parent-child study at the heart of this book, which includes interviews with mothers, fathers, and their daughters. Literatures on classed and gendered parenting are reviewed, and the primary argument of the book developed. The theoretical model suggests that social class intersects with beliefs about gender to influence how parents approach the college years. These approaches have consequences for women’s academic and career outcomes, as well as for parents. An overview of the book is also provided. (pages 1 - 20)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.003.0001
[culture, college, social class, parenting, gender, work and family]
This chapter details 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 reflect their current class position. One vision missing at Midwest U is discussed, and the tight link between college visions and parenting approaches is explored. The chapter ends by examining potential disagreements between mothers and fathers. (pages 21 - 44)

Part I: Parenting Approaches

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.003.0002
[social class, parental involvement, division of labor, gender, work and family, affluence]
Chapter 2 is the first of three chapters providing portraits of the parenting approaches common at Midwest U. It introduces parents utilizing a helicopter approach. These mostly well-resourced mothers and fathers display an inegalitarian gendered division of labor in their own households and adopt highly intensive parenting approaches. There are two types: Professional helicopters monitor all activities with the goal of facilitating their daughters’ career development. In contrast, pink helicopters hover in the social arena and invest in traditional gender arrangements. (pages 47 - 75)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.003.0003
[social class, parental involvement, division of labor, gender, work and family, intergenerational transmission]
Chapter 3 discusses parents who display a paramedic approach during the college years, in that they are neither intensive nor uninvolved. These parents come from a wide variety of class backgrounds and focus on developing autonomy. Affluent paramedics pull back involvement and funding and less affluent paramedics intentionally step it up, compared to their same-class peers. All are ready to swoop in the event of an emergency. Mothers and fathers share the work of being a paramedic equally. (pages 76 - 97)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.003.0004
[social class, parental involvement, financial aid, parent-child relations, economic disadvantage]
Chapter 4 discusses bystanders who remain on the sidelines of their daughters’ lives at college. They are from the middle to lower end of the class spectrum. Supportive bystanders help to cover college costs and root for their daughters, even though they cannot provide active involvement and intervention. Total bystanders are emotionally and fiscally detached; they see their daughters as adults who need to manage by themselves. Both groups are unable to offer guidance and navigational assistance. (pages 98 - 116)

Part II: Parenting Consequences

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.003.0005
[college, social experience, side effects, academic underperformance, job market, financial dependence]
Chapter 5 is the first of three chapters that addresses the consequences of college parenting approaches for both women and their parents. It discusses an interesting paradox: While pink helicopters often secure the social experiences they desire for their daughters, they are angry about the unanticipated side effects, including low academic achievement, limited motivation, and extended financial dependence. Few families have the resources necessary to overcome the resulting damage to women’s academic records, job market potential, and economic security. (pages 119 - 139)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.003.0006
[college, academic achievement, degree completion, job market, autonomy, post-college success]
Chapter 6 compares two satisfied groups of parents who are happy with what their daughters got out of their time at MU. Professional helicopters are pleased because their daughters earn strong grades and move smoothly into professional careers or graduate school. However, these parents are not surprised. After all, they engineered failure out of the question. In contrast, paramedics take risks by allowing autonomy. With a few exceptions, their independent daughters make rewarding, but also less predictable, life decisions. (pages 140 - 161)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.003.0007
[college, class inequality, degree completion, persistence, institutional barriers]
Chapter 7 captures the angst of bystanders, who are disappointed with Midwest U. These parents expect the university to offer a full range of services. Without assistance, many of their daughters are unable to overcome barriers to success. Supportive bystanders’ daughters are pulled into the party scene, while total bystanders’ daughters experience financial stress. Both groups of women struggle with grades, major selection, persistence, and locating jobs requiring a Bachelor’s degree. (pages 162 - 186)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226183671.003.0008
[privatization, higher education, class inequality, gender inequality, policy solutions]
Chapter 8 summarizes the benefits enjoyed by students with involved and well-resourced parents. These occur in the context of the new family-university partnership, whereby many crucial tasks are outsourced to parents. This partnership is likely to deepen existing class, as well as racial, inequities. The chapter emphasizes the gendered costs to both women and men and highlights the problems associated with institutionalizing extended dependence on parents. The book concludes with several policy solutions, invoking the market, status-based processes, and the state. (pages 187 - 209)

Methodological Appendix: Studying Parenting

Appendix A: Parents and Daughters