A recent New York Times article published in mid-January reveals some interesting findings regarding the psychology of who pays for college and what grades are earned. I thought the results were fascinating, provocative even—see what you think. Some of my peers were ho-hum-ed by them—I think there is a lot to think and talk about here.

Laura Hamilton, a sociologist at the University of California, Merced, studied the link between college grades and parental financial support (essentially, how well do students do academically as a function of who is paying—someone else—usually the home team of Mom and Dad—or the students themselves). Before we get to her findings, here are two established facts:

(1) Students from more affluent families are more likely to attend college than those from more modest or poorer backgrounds, and

(2) Students whose parents pay for their degrees are more likely to graduate from college.

But—and this is a big but, even a surprise: Hamilton also found the data reveal that the more college money Mom and Dad provide (whether in absolute terms or as a share of the total cost of college) the lower grades their children receive. Put another way, students whose way is paid for them do less well academically than those who pay their own way.

Before we conclude that rugged individualism—an American theme right up there with manifest destiny—is the one true way, we also need to think about the results in another light. As any student of research methods and statistics will (should!) tell you, “correlation does not imply causation.” (When I posted a link to the Times article on my Facebook page, one of my friends was quick to say he would be using it in his classes to demonstrate the how easily we are to assume causality when an association is positive.) Hamilton’s findings are not causal, of course—we don’t know the individual dynamics in play in all those families—no experiment was conducted.

So, despite our snap judgments, the rich students are not necessarily corrupt or lazy, the less well-heeled ones (by gosh) are not necessarily universally hard working or virtuous, and values or their absence don’t necessarily drive behavior, and so on. Life is a bit more complex than that.

And as Hamilton noted, the effect is modest (but quite real) but most people (count me in this group) heretofore have just assumed that the more dollar support you give, the better your children do grade-wise. (Indeed, some of us, ahem, have counted on that—now spurious—assumption.) No doubt we could identify quite a few theories here, such as “not having to work during college makes more time available for study” or “being grateful for parental gifts is motivating when it comes to test taking.” Such theories give us something to talk about, as life is not all about dismal economics, thankfully—there is psychology and history (one’s own, that of one’s family, and the rich passage of time we are all apart of) to consider.

 Talking may well be the main point to be drawn here—parents and offspring should discuss the true costs of college, what is expected where academic performance is concerned (not specific grades but studying and work ethic), and the like. If you have already completed college or are “still in the game” so to speak, did you discuss responsibility issues with the folks? Do you realize what a good college education costs? Are you working as hard as (reasonably) possible to have your grades (reasonably) offset the investment (whether the latter is yours or your parents’)?

 If you are a parent and you plan to pay your child’s way (which is commendable and laudable—or it may be a duty or a joy or simply a responsibility—it all depends on your own philosophy), have you discussed the student’s—your student’s—responsibility where his or her education is concerned? If not, Hamilton’s work should give you pause. Have that chat—if you have time before the college years come around—have several chats—not to chastise or scare or goad or wheedle but to be honest the costs involved and about the importance of having reasonable and clear expectations on both sides. You are happy to pay or to help pay for college, say, as long as that gesture is repaid with sincere effort where grades and making progress to graduation are concerned.

 Undergraduate education is an investment—but it is also much more than that—it is life changing on many levels. Everyone involved in the decision deserves a say, but I have noticed that as college has moved from the “it’s a privilege” category to the “’it’s a virtual necessity” category that the responsibilities entailed are often overlooked. Hamilton’s research encourages us all to revisit and rethink how we view this important four-year journey.

Most Recent Posts from Head of the Class

Applying to Grad School in Psychology?

Get organized now—don't be late!

Attendance Matters!

Why Students Should Show Up to Class Regularly