When Mom and Dad Pay College Tuition in Full

A new study suggests that college students whose parents foot the bill have lower GPAs than their peers.

It’s a common belief that any financial contribution a parent can make toward his or her child’s college education will help the kid in both the short and long run, but an intriguing new study may dismantle that old chestnut. The study, reported by The New York Times on Tuesday, suggests that kids who have parents wealthy enough to float their whole college experience end up with lower GPAs than kids who pay part of their tuition themselves.

The study, titled “More is More or More Is Less? Parent Financial Investments During College,” was conducted by Laura Hamilton, a sociology professor at the University of California, Merced. Hamilton’s interest was sparked when she lived in a dormitory for a year and observed students’ differing socioeconomic backgrounds, and later interviewed their parents. She noticed that, though the kids whose parents paid their full college tuition were more likely to finish school, their grades were more likely to be worse than those who shouldered some of the financial burden themselves. It seemed to her that the kids who had a little “skin in the game” were more committed to getting good grades. When she looked into the question systematically, she found it was true. The students who took part in paying for their education had higher GPAs than those whose college tuition was paid in full by their parents.

The difference in grades wasn’t staggering, but it was counterintutive. “It’s a modest effect, not big enough to make the kid flunk out of college,” Hamilton told the Times. “But it was surprising because everybody has always assumed that the more you give the better your child does.”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader who glimpsed the story’s headline and thought it would surely be another story about how much better off the rich kids are in college, thanks to mom and dad’s support. I was stunned when I read Hamilton’s result, but I shouldn’t have been. The study is the latest in a growing body of literature detailing the insidious dangers of affluenza.

Last year, Madeleine Levine’s The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids brought us unlikely tales of depressed and anxious teens living in tony Marin County, California, with great schools, successful parents, and sunny days galore. And for years Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia Teachers College, has been warning of the high price of affluence—costs that include kids whose privileged lives have led to widespread maladjustment including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

It seems life at the top isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But there is one bright side. Hamilton found that the well-off kids performed better if their parents had honest discussions with them about expectations and responsibilities while at school. The kids whose parents failed to have such talks fared the worst. This finding dovetails perfectly with what Levine and Luthar have been telling us: that kids would take their parents’ time and attention over their money any day.