College students post lower grades when parents pay more toward their educations

Less can add up to more, at least in terms on parental financial support and college grades, according to a new study. (AJC file photo)

Less can add up to more, at least in terms of parental financial support and college grades, according to a new study. (AJC file photo)

I had a conversation Monday night with a friend who, along with paying tuition, provided her daughter with $1,300 a month for living expenses in college. That money went to rent, meals and extras.

I felt Scrooge-like as I only gave my two older children $400 a month to cover rent once they left the college dorms and moved into shared off-campus rental apartments where they were responsible for their meals.

I didn’t pay anything else toward their related living expenses. My kids held part-time jobs so I assumed they could cover their own groceries. (One worked in a restaurant and ate there a lot, while the other made a lot of Ramen noodles, They  both graduated college in less than four years, probably because they were starving. )

Turns out that my miserly ways could have had some value.

There is a fascinating new study in the American Sociological Review that shows that the more money parents pay toward college, the lower their kids’ grades.

According to The New York Times:

Students from wealthy families are more likely than those from poor families to go to college, and those whose parents pay their way are more likely to graduate. But according to “More Is More or More Is Less? Parent Financial Investments During College,” a study by Laura Hamilton, a sociology professor at the University of California, Merced, greater parental contributions were linked with lower grades across all kinds of four-year institutions.

“It’s a modest effect, not big enough to make the kid flunk out of college,” said Dr. Hamilton, whose study was published in this month’s American Sociological Review. “But it was surprising because everybody has always assumed that the more you give, the better your child does.”

Dr. Hamilton suggested that students who get a blank check from their parents may not take their education as seriously as others. She became intrigued with this possibility years ago, after spending a year living in a college dormitory and observing the students, then following them through graduation and, eventually, interviewing their parents.

“Oddly, a lot of the parents who contributed the most money didn’t get the best returns on their investment,” she said. “Their students were more likely to stay and graduate, but their G.P.A.’s were mediocre at best, and some I didn’t see study even once. I wondered if that was nationally true, which led me to this quantitative study, which found that it is.”

“There were some affluent families who thought their children were spoiled and didn’t pay the whole cost, and there were some families who had scrimped and saved and borrowed from family members and taken out loans,” she said. “And the affluent families aren’t hurt the most by the lower grades, because they had the connections to call the head of NBC or the N.F.L. and get their child a job. It’s more of a problem for the middle-class parents, who worked hard to pay the college costs, used up their retirement funds and are out of money by graduation time.”

The study is also discussed this week in Inside Higher Ed:

This finding backs the idea that parental financial support can act as a “moral hazard” in that students make decisions about how seriously to take their studies without having personally made the investment of cash in their educations.

The impact of parental contributions on grades was lower (but still present) at highly competitive institutions. Generally the grades were lowest for students with high levels of support from their parents at private, out-of-state and more expensive colleges.

Before parents reading this article cancel those spring semester tuition checks and Facebook message their college-age kids to get jobs, there are two important caveats to the study.

One is that the study found a positive association (even controlling for other factors) between increased parental contributions and graduation over five years. In an interview, Hamilton said that she explained this finding (even if apparently contradictory with the results on grades) because those with minimal levels of parental support have a much more difficult job paying for college, and those who can’t pay, can’t graduate. “Kids who don’t have funds, they don’t stay,” she said.

–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

46 comments Add your comment


January 15th, 2013
4:51 am

It could be that the students receiving the most money also knew that their well-to-do parents would have connections for finding employment after graduation. I had many classmates who knew that there was a partnership-track or upper management job waiting for them in daddy’s company when they graduated, regardless of their GPA. Those students without family resources know they will have to find jobs based on their own qualifications, so they may have more incentive to work harder. A good follow-up study would be to find out which set of students is making more money 5 years after graduation.


January 15th, 2013
6:13 am

This is an interesting finding. However, the vast majority of my students are not from wealthy parents. That they don’t take their education as seriously as they should is also quite evident. So money may not be the determining factor. If I had to guess, and I have no hard research to back this up, many (most?) college students don’t take their education as seriously as they should because . . . they’re young and immature.


January 15th, 2013
6:57 am

Of course, there are also the outliers like me. I did not work in high school or college, went through in less than 3 years before AP classes were offered by taking overloads, and graduated with a 3.7. My folks wrote a check at the beginning of the term, with a modest $10 per week for “fun” and my job was to study hard and live within those means.

MY kids, however, had to work some; as a single parent with their tuition/room and board over $30,000 per year it was tough. Their work paid for anything above tuition and room and board.

I see this type of phenomenon at K-12. Our Lions Club is very generous in buying kids their glasses and paying for the eye appointment. However, we have had some kids who have “lost” or deliberately destroyed those glasses, more than once. A couple have had their parents hauled into court for other neglect, and the judge has told THEM to buy and expect the child to take care of the glasses, or face jail time! Much more motivating when the parents are required to pay.


January 15th, 2013
7:51 am

Duh. I went to college straight out of high school on my parents dime and with a partial scholarship. By the second quarter I had a full scholarship. By the third quarter I had dropped out with a really crappy GPA. When I started back, I had to do it on my own dime – my dad did help me get short term loans, but other than that it was all on me. Graduated Cum Laude. Having to pay for it all myself made all the difference in the world.

Atlanta Mom

January 15th, 2013
8:02 am

Anything received with no effort is never valued as much as something earned.

Michelle-Middle School

January 15th, 2013
8:18 am

No surprise here. We are living in an “entitlement” society. What has happened to “work ethic?” I earned my way through college, almost every penny. The total amount of money my parents paid for my education was less than $1000.00. I worked for the entire four years I was in college, maintaining a 3.8 overall average and graduating cum laude with a dual major. Was it easy? No! I worked my butt off. My parents could not afford for me to go to college, so I had to make it happen on my own. I am proud of my conviction to learning and my fortitude in getting through it all. I never thought it was the responsibility of my parents to pay my way. Working to achieve your personal education goals is a great way to set the foundation for a successful life. The only person in anyone’s life who always looks out for #1 is you. Today’s youth just don’t get it. Until they do, I feel America is going to continue to drop in international prestige. We need to instill in our students the importance of making commitments to their own education and future. Today, we do a terrible injustice to everyone by giving them everything they think they deserve.


January 15th, 2013
8:27 am

lahopital – 4:51

That is exactly correct.

And, it explains the large number of incompetent and mediocre upper level managers we, the less privileded, have to put up with.

Simmer Down

January 15th, 2013
8:30 am

When I graduated from private high school my parents told me it is time for college but I had to pay the entire thing. Not just room and board but tuition. I chose a college that was affordable. During the 4 years I worked like a dog during the summers to pay for school during the year as well as at night. I struggled but made it through and graduated on time. During the experience I hated my parents for not “giving” me the education I “deserved”. I graduated on a Saturday and started work on that Monday to start earning money as I was broke. In the end, my parents did give me the education I deserved. It was one of personal responsibility and accomplishment. Not sure how I will handle the same situation with my own sons in a couple of years but I can tell you it won’t all be on my dime.

A. Teesman

January 15th, 2013
8:33 am

My parents paid every bit of my college expense and I coasted. Now I cannot apply for a graduate program, because my 30-year-old transcript does not pass muster. Buckle down students, turns out there is a “permanent record” that will follow you.

A. Teesman

January 15th, 2013
8:36 am

By the way, my parents were not wealthy and I did non-paid work on our farm every summer and every spring break.

An Accidential Professor

January 15th, 2013
8:41 am

I was so glad when I read this article yesterday on another site! First of all no one is entitled to the “good life” while going to college. $1300 a month is ridiculous when people raise families on less than $1000 per month. I am not necessarily against parents paying for their kids to go to college. If I was a parent, I would do anything within my power to make sure my children received an undergraduate education in order to give them the best possible chance for economic success. That being said, I would not pay for college with loans or my retirement savings. There are far too many options (including requiring your child to obtain a part time job, going to a junior college for two years or commuting to campus while living at home) to sacrifice my future for the sake of four years of fun. Just ask my mother in law who is now working three years after she was supposed to retire after putting her son through five years at UGA only to have him move back home and work part time at Pottery Barn. He claims he would like to find a job in his field but is too busy with his 30 hour a week job. Obviously he did not learn time management while in college because he did not have to. Personally, I can always tell the difference between students who work and do not work. Generally speaking the students with part time jobs are better at time management and rarely miss class. Even with a full load of fifteen hours, students have PLENTY of time to balance work and school. Learning to balance is an essential life skill and I am disheartened when I see otherwise bright kids who are not motivated to learn that because their parents are intent on extending their adolescence.

Full disclosure: It was never an option for me to go away to school. I worked full time while I was in college and commuted to school three days a week. I graduated with a 3.0 GPA and no debt. I also had plenty of fun during those years!

Concerned DeKalb Mom

January 15th, 2013
8:45 am

I think it will be interesting to do the same study years from now…

College costs, as a percentage of income, is vastly different today than it was 20 years ago when I was a student. There is no way I could foot the entire bill for my children like my parents did for me…but saying that, I worked every summer and made my own $$ for expenses beyond room, board, books, and tuition. Anything I wanted to do besides eat, sleep, and study was on my own dime.

I took out loans for my graduate work and paid it all myself. Did much better in grad school, academically, than in undergrad…but that was an issue of MATURITY in my opinion rather than my paying my own way.

Another view

January 15th, 2013
8:51 am

If this study proves true, would not the same hold true for HOPE? Certainly, my apathetic students would benefit from more incentives to succeed.


January 15th, 2013
9:16 am

$1300 is an awful lot of money…..


January 15th, 2013
9:44 am

We have two daughters, 18 and 26. The younger made Dean’s List her first semester and the other has straight A’s in her graduate prorgam. They’re both footing their own bills- our college freshman is a Zell Miller Scholar supplemented by loans and scholarships and a PT job. The grad student is working 3 jobs and getting grants and loans. Our freshman is incensed whenever she feels a professor is just phoning it in- it’s HER money they’re wasting. If you’re looking for poster children for self-financed education, look no further.


January 15th, 2013
10:45 am

To me there is only two classes of students. Those that can afford to go to college and those that are left behind. I know when I was a kid, I was left behind. If they cannot make it, then they can work with me in a low end job.


January 15th, 2013
10:47 am

This might be purely a statistical reflection of motivation. The students whose parents pay for their expenses are more likely to be going to college because their parents want them to go. The students who share the costs are more likely to be in school because they want to be there.


January 15th, 2013
11:09 am

If you have no skin in the game (and never probably did as you were given inflated grades in high school and every other modern convenience) then you have not developed a work ethic. Your parents have raised another entitlement baby and not a responsible adult. This country will fall because of this phenomenon. I hope this generation gets a fire in the belly about something, anything; because they will not be able to compete against the hungry in the world.


January 15th, 2013
11:15 am

The world needs ditch diggers too.

William Casey

January 15th, 2013
11:16 am

Personally, I believe that the most important factor in getting the most out of college is an understanding between parent and student that paying for higher ed will be a joint venture. We started a college fund for our son when he was three months old. When he was around 15, we began talking college. I showed him the numbers, the money in the fund and the projected costs of college. It was obvious to him that he needed to get and keep the HOPE scholarship. This he did. He also realized that his lifestyle would be VERY “bare bones” unless he contributed, especially true once he decided to get two degrees, a decision requiring Summer school and overloads most semesters. He got a job tutoring math at the university, working 20 hours per week. Problem solved. He will graduate in May with degrees in Mathematics and Philosophy/Logic with a 3.7 GPA. Our total outlay was about $28,000. He kicked in around $6,000. BTW, we made it clear up front that (1) he was to complete his undergrad work in four years, and (2) neither he nor we would go into debt to pay for schooling. It’s amazing what kids can do when they have to. We feel that we got our money’s worth.


January 15th, 2013
11:19 am

Interesting … I think there’s plenty of merit to this study and I’d be willing to bet it pans out upon more study.

Due to various circumstances, some of my own doing, some due to family obligations, I went to two different schools in two different states. The first time, right out of high school, I worked but I also had a LOT of fun, but I was also getting more help from family. The second time, I was in my mid-20s, had been in the workforce and knew what I wanted to do. My grandfather helped me quite a bit by giving me $1,000 a month for rent and living expenses, but I had to work hard, share with him how my classes were going and what my grades were and I had to provide for my own food and supplemental spending money for car insurance/gas/fun/etc. I also had loans, which I have now finished paying off.

I can definitely say the second time around, I worked harder and made better grades … it wasn’t that I had done badly the first time, but being a bit older than the average college student and having my financial aid be totally up to me and earning the scholarships I got the second time around made it a much more meaningful experience. Plus, I was working on the weekends at a grocery store and I had a weekday part-time campus job (work study) as well, so I stayed pretty busy all the time.


January 15th, 2013
11:30 am

$1300 a month?

Good Lord, that’s nearly as much as I net every month working, and I have a college degree!


January 15th, 2013
11:42 am

Maureen tell you friend to adopt me.


January 15th, 2013
11:53 am

My dad use to say, “Rich kids go to college and poor kids go to work”.


January 15th, 2013
11:55 am

The privilege of having parents to help pay for your education is a dream. My parents died at the end of my freshman year. I struggled for the next four years to graduate after transferring closer to home. I missed the few dollars they scraped together to send me. On my own I earned a small scholarship playing soccer, became an RA, got PELL grants, took out a lot of loans, jobs on and off campus and finally a real job in television as a reporter BEFORE graduation. Paid off my loans in about ten years. I made it because I wanted to do the responsible thing and graduate. GPA wasn’t the greatest but I made it. Will I comfort my 17 year old with a hefty monthly allowance this fall? Only time will tell.


January 15th, 2013
11:58 am

I wonder if the American Sociological Review has ever thought to apply these same study parameters to recipients of government assistance. I would imagine the findings would be very similar.


January 15th, 2013
12:02 pm

woodrow- if there is a will to go to college, there is a way. Just a matter of, how badly you want it? Grants, working through college, loans, GI Bill; all possible. Start first with community college for cheapest rates. I started out making minumim wage because I had no skills. Set goals, sacrificed and achieved so today; very well compensated. Amercia is the land of opportunity; still. Life is about the decisions each of us make.

Mitch Kumstein

January 15th, 2013
12:12 pm

I made great grades in High School, went to college on my parents dime, made really good grades, went to Law School on my parents dime, graduated with honors and have just made partner in a rather large firm.

My “job” was to make good grades, take my education seriously, make good decisions and to stay out of trouble.

I never had to work during school, yet somehow I know how to put in 60+ hours a week at my position now. I guess there is an exception to every rule.

Teacher Reader

January 15th, 2013
12:17 pm

While I agree that a child should pay for college, as he’ll appreciate it and work harder, with parents income used to calculate what aid a child will get, there is no way that my child could make enough to pay full price for his tuition at even an instate school (maybe with HOPE, but only maybe).

College should not be a parent’s responsibility and should be on the child. A parent’s income shouldn’t be used to determine a child’s aid, and it should all be more affordable. The dorms now a day are plush and posh, compared to the dorms that I had 20 some years ago.


January 15th, 2013
12:18 pm

“I wonder if the American Sociological Review has ever thought to apply these same study parameters to recipients of government assistance.”

Christina, you should head over to CNN and check out an article posted today about recipients of government aid. You may be surprised at what you find.


January 15th, 2013
12:33 pm

Well this brings up the issue of all these kids who have lower grades because the govt is paying all from cradle to grave………


January 15th, 2013
12:40 pm

@AnotherView Depends on how the kid views HOPE. I got a full ride, but I also worked my butt off in high school to get the scholarship, and again in college to maintain it. I viewed it as my job; my grades paid for school and my work paid for spending cash. Also, my parents were VERY clear that if I ever lost HOPE I’d have to pay for everything myself. Great motivator.

But, of course, if parents don’t have a consequence for their child losing HOPE (like many of my friends’ parents neglected to do) then of course their kids aren’t going to try. It’s not a matter of payment, it’s a matter of consequences. If people don’t see any to their actions, then they won’t care.

bootney farnsworth

January 15th, 2013
1:03 pm

any data on how the girls with sugar daddies do?


January 15th, 2013
1:11 pm

Sometimes parent’s expectations exceed what the student is capable of achieving, so the parents sets the student up to fail. Examples would be parents willingness to pay for an engineering degree, but not an easier degree, or parent’s expecting the student to maintain a full course load at all times. The purse string here is a dependent factor, and the cause is unrealistic expectations. If you are paying for your own education, then you can gage your course load and courses to match your capabilities. Additionally, nobody is going to guilt trip you into not dropping a class, except for maybe the instructor.


January 15th, 2013
1:14 pm

I apologize, the grades are the dependent factor, and the purse string is an independent variable.

Same Boat

January 15th, 2013
1:40 pm

For what it is worth, I paid almost exactly the same amount to my kids’ expenses when they moved out of the dorm. My agreement was to pay the same as room and board in the dorm towards their rent payment in an off campus apartment. It ended up being between $400 and $450 per month. They were responsible for all other expenses. But I don’t have any clue as to whether it helped or hurt their grades.


January 15th, 2013
1:49 pm

I began university right after high school on my parents’ dime and attended for a quarter and a half, earning two Bs and a D before dropping out. Five years of working made me realize that I could only go so far without a degree, but at that point my parents wouldn’t pay for me to return to school, so I worked part-time and took out loans to cover my rent and other expenses. After my return, I made mostly As (never less than a B), made the Dean’s List, graduated with honors and never defaulted on my student loan, now paid off. Naturally, I believe one works harder and enjoys greater rewards if one has some skin in the game.


January 15th, 2013
1:51 pm

P.S. I wonder today at the students in our halls who complain about having to wait in line to buy books paid for by HOPE. HOPE came along the year after I graduated from university.


January 15th, 2013
2:51 pm

I don’t know when your kids were in College but the scenario now has changed. There are now too many people looking for jobs, even the ones students used to be able to get part time. The Hope Scholarship is even less now a days. Tuition keeps going up. We are on a crash program in higher education. An average HS student these days have to take some remedial courses. Student loans today are very high in cost and the default rate is almost as high. With the Obummer economy; things do not look bright for the future in higher education.

Spider S

January 15th, 2013
4:56 pm

My generous parents did pay for my tuition, room and board at an expensive private school. I made deans list every semester but one and graduated with honors in 4 years. I actually was very motivated by the fact that my parents were making that sacrifice for me. There was no way I would be able to look them in the eye with poor grades. I did work part time during the year and full time every summer. I paid for all my extras myself. I think some of it is just plain work ethic. Some people have it, some don’t.


January 15th, 2013
7:07 pm

Girls with sugar daddy’s perform wonderfully, both in and out of the classroom!

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January 16th, 2013
10:46 am

Heh, I wonder if part of the incentive for students who work is seeing how boring and low-paying the jobs are that you have to get with no college degree, and realizing if you don’t work your butt off you’re going to end up with one of those jobs. Certainly think it worked for me.


January 16th, 2013
7:23 pm

Agree with all of the above: students work harder when it is their money on the line.

Catie H.

January 17th, 2013
12:36 pm

The students who have the highest GPAs in High School, tend to excel in college, and are often handed scholarships from their colleges when they are admitted, and therefore need less money from parents to pay for tuition. They know that to keep their scholarships, they need to keep their grades up. However, mediocre students with parents who have cash, feel less of an incentive to work hard and require more money from the get go, because they don’t receive scholarships that they need to maintain with high GPAs.


January 17th, 2013
4:21 pm

I went to school on my dime and the government’s as I had to get some student loans. However, I would not have expected my parents to pay as I was a parent myself and 47 years old when I decided to go to school. I was the first member of my family to obtain a college degree and did it while working full time and raising two children who were in their teens by the time I started. I had to work my heart out and lose many hours of sleep for a few years to get it all done but I knew it was worth every hard minute when I graduated with a B.A. cum laude. The interesting thing is that my daughter began attending the same university during my last year there. She never even asked for money because she knew we didn’t have it. Her dad and I helped when we could, which was in very small ways. She worked on campus all four years and worked another year and a half on campus after graduating. She knew how to cut corners, scrimp and save, and still have fun. She graduated suma cum laude and even more impressing is that when she left to start college again in a distant city she took enough money with her to pay for three years of rent, money that she had saved without us even knowing that she had. She again graduated a couple of months ago with a second degree and a second suma cum laude. Once again she worked, scrimped, saved and had fun. She and I both took our college education very seriously and we have had this conversation before and both believe that having to pay for school out of our own pockets made us truly appreciate our opportunity to get an education and made us exceptionally proud that we made the most of it. We also have talked about classmates we had who were going to school on Mom and Dad’s time and partied all night and slept through class. It truly is a sad commentary on the state of our society. In my opinion the worst part isn’t that some students play while they are supposed to be working and studying. The worst part is that those parents think they are helping their child and don’t see the grave damage they are doing until it is too late.