The Overinvolved Parent: College Edition

The Atlantic

Stacy G.’s daughter was having a meltdown. Her daughter, a sophomore at a prestigious private college, wanted an internship at Boston Children’s Hospital, a plum job that would look great on her applications to graduate school. After four weeks of frantically waiting for the school to arrange for an interview at the hospital, Stacy called her daughter’s adviser at the internships office to complain.

“For $65,000 [in full attendance costs], you can bet your sweet ass that I’m calling that school … If your children aren’t getting what they’ve been promised, colleges are going to get that phone call from parents,” Stacy said. “It’s my money. It’s a lot of money. We did try to have her handle it on her own, but when it didn’t work out, I called them.”

Whether Stacy is representative of the majority of parents of students at four-year, selective colleges or a member of the dreaded “helicopter parents” club, there are enough parents like her to have spawned a small industry of self-helpbooks on the subject, research papers, and even a new cellphone app. Checking in with their children daily and occasionally contacting school administrators, a contingent of parents of students at these schools have stepped up their involvement levels in recent years, sources told me, because of technology, employment concerns, and the high price of college. And colleges themselves have responded by creating new channels to communicate with parents.

Laura Hamilton, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced, began studying a group of college women and their families back in 2004, embedding herself in the dormitory of a midwestern college and later writing about her qualitative research in two books, Paying for the Party and Parenting to a Degree. As Hamilton explained in a 2016 Atlantic article adapted from the latter book, involvement by the parents varied. Some parents, often those without college experience themselves, had a hands-off approach to their kids’ higher education, while other parents were more involved. Among the most highly involved parents, some helped their kids navigate the school bureaucracy so they could later enter into graduate programs or a solid entry-level job requiring a degree. Others were highly involved with their daughters’ social lives, assuring that they were well-positioned to find wealthy husbands. “The Mrs. degree is alive and well,” Hamilton told me.

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