Involved college parents—frequently referred to as “helicopters”—are often derided as pesky interlopers who micromanage their children’s lives and make excessive demands on school decision makers. An entire generation of supposedly coddled and entitled youth is considered the byproduct of this problematic behavior. Do involved college parents damage their children and burden universities? To answer this question, Professor Hamilton followed the families of 41 young women as they moved through a public flagship. She interviewed the women every year for five years, asking about parental relationships and support, and interviewed both their mothers and fathers as women neared graduation. She found that intensive parenting is a logical response to the harsh risks facing young people during college and early adulthood; however, not all parents are able to offer assistance. Moreover, involved college parents are also highly desired by universities, as they solve institutional problems posed, in part, by the privatization process. As public funds dwindle and accountability pressures mount, institutions are looking elsewhere for support. Parents are drawn into the labor of producing successful students—assisting with recruitment, advising, psychological support, career development, and even student safety. This form of cooperation between public schools and wealthy families has important hidden costs, as it exacerbates both gender and class inequality.
Laura T. Hamilton is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California-Merced, author of Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success, and co-author of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Broadly, her interests include gender, sexuality, family, education, social class, and mixed research methods. Hamilton earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from Indiana University in 2003 and 2010, respectively, and her B.A. in sociology from DePauw University in 2001.