The study is based on figures from three large federal data sets that allow parental contributions and grades to be compared. Hamilton controlled for family socio-economic status, allowing a comparison of similar students whose families make different choices about how much of the cost of college to pick up.
The effect on college GPA is relatively small, Hamilton said. “The reason it was so shocking, however, is that all the research on parental investments from pre-school through [college] assumes [that if] you give something to your kids, particularly money, it leads to good things. This is one case where it not only doesn’t have the expected good effect, it has a small negative effect.”
When parents pick up greater absolute amounts and shares of college costs, it affects college GPA across the income distribution, though the effect is steepest at families earning more than $90,000. At that level, and controlling for other factors, parents not giving their children any aid predicts a college GPA of 3.15. At $16,000 in aid, GPA drops under 3.0. At $40,000, it hits 2.95.
While rich families obviously find it easier to contribute, poorer families do as well, at greater sacrifice. But Hamilton says the damage might be greater for those families, because lower GPAs don’t hurt better-off students as much in the job market. Wealthier students can rely on connections and further help from parents.
Students without those connections “have to have the 3.0 in order to pass the initial resume glance,” she said.
Hamilton found grants, scholarships, work-study, student employment, and veterans benefits don’t have similar negative effects on college GPA, though loans do, along with direct parental aid. She suggests that’s because loans and unconditional parental grants have no immediate strings attached, whereas scholarships and grants often carry GPA requirements. There also might be a psychological effect. With grants, “students feel like they’ve earned them in some way” and want to justify them.
Hamilton said the findings don’t suggest parents should stop supporting students financially, especially considering there is a larger positive effect on graduation rates than the negative effect on GPA. But they should lay out standards and expectations. And even if parents can afford the whole bill, it might be worthwhile to make students put up some of their own funds, or work part-time, so they feel invested.
In her broader research on the topic, Hamilton says she’s found some parents signal it’s OK to take advantage of their support for a more social experience.
“Some parents were 100-percent complicit in this,” she said. “They absolutely wanted their children to go to school and party hard. They told me explicitly it’s not about grades, it’s about having fun, the best years of your life.”
She added: “Now for some families, it all works out OK. The ‘best years of your life’ idea has trickled down to what everybody thinks college should be. But not everybody can afford for college to be like that. And they pay for that for a long time.”