Stop Giving Your College Student Money

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Seriously:  tear up that checkbook; stop that money transfer. If your child freaks out, just tell her that it’s for her own good — after all, recent studies have found that parental support for college-age students is linked with a number of not-so-good things, including lower grades and increased binge drinking.

In a just-published study, sociologist Laura Hamilton concluded that the greater the parental contribution, the lower the student’s grades  — even after controlling for socioeconomic status. According to Inside Higher Ed, “the lowest grades were earned by children whose parents essentially supported them without much discussion of student responsibilities.”

Hamilton also argues that the wealthiest cohort of students tended to see college as “a party pathway” dominated by the Greek system, and in the process neglect things like, oh, studying and attending class. While that may be a blanket generalization, it lines up with research out of Brigham Young University, where researchers found that the children of parents who contributed the least (in financial terms) were the least likely to engage in “risky behavior” (in BYU’s terms, that amounts to “drinking, binge drinking, marijuana use, and smoking”).

Both studies’ authors come prepared with plenty of caveats, but the underlying message is worth considering. Providing unlimited support without any clear expectations or guidelines may seem like generous parenting, but it may actually stymie a student’s growing-up process. After all, college is when many young people learn how to balance work, schoolwork, and life; it’s also the first time that many have been primarily responsible for their own money management. And while Hamilton found that expectation-free money was correlated with lower grades, she also found that parents who set clear expectations for their children essentially mitigated the negative impact of parental financial support.

But let’s face it:   most parents who have the means probably aren’t going to cut their children off, even if it might do them good in the long run. Instead of making any drastic moves, Hamilton suggests considering financial support less like a donation and more like an investment:  What do you expect to get in return for your expenditure? Does the cost-benefit analysis make sense — for everyone involved?

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