Parental Investments in Youth

Sociologists have long identified parental resources and practices as key mechanisms driving class reproduction — explaining how the educational and occupational standings of parents are largely reproduced by their children. My research adds to this rich tradition of research by elucidating some often implicit, but little investigated ways that family background and structure advantage or disadvantage youth.

My dissertation, Strategies for Success: Parental Funding, College Achievement, and the Transition to Adulthood, examines perhaps one of the most crucial and costly of parental investments — the funding of a college education. This project was supported by an American Educational Research Association Dissertation Grant. While current research suggests that parental financial support helps get students to the college gates, we know less about how, why, and to what end parents choose to deploy resources during postsecondary education. I use a variety of datasets, both quantitative and qualitative, to investigate these questions.

A paper based on my dissertation, "More is More or More is Less? Parental Financial Investments during College" was published in American Sociological Review in 2013. In the paper, I use data from several representative postsecondary datasets to determine what effect financial parental investments have on student GPA and degree completion. The findings suggest seemingly contradictory processes: While parental aid decreases student GPA, it increases the odds of graduating — net of explanatory variables and accounting for alternative funding. Results suggest that students are satisficing: They meet the criteria for adequacy on multiple fronts, rather than optimizing their chances for a particular outcome. As a result, students with parental funding often perform well enough to stay in school, but dial down their academic efforts. I conclude by highlighting the importance of social context for parental investment and discussing implications for public policy.

I have also conducted other work in this area, using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten-First Grade Waves to examine how family structure shapes the economic, cultural, social, and interactional resources that parents provide for their elementary-aged children. I am the lead author (along with Simon Cheng and Brian Powell) on Adoptive Parents, Adaptive Parents: Evaluating the Importance of Biological Ties for Parental Investment (American Sociological Review 2007). We find that contrary to contemporary legal and scholarly debate, the non-biological parents of adoptive children invest as much, if not more, than biological parents do in their children. Our work suggests that alternative family forms once thought to disadvantage youth may, in some ways, even act as an advantage.

Future work will return to the main focus of the dissertation, using qualitative data on parental investment strategies. I will show that parents set out to purchase vastly different educational and social experiences for their youth. These differing parental approaches shape what children get out of college, how they transition into life post-college, and when they enter into roles traditionally associated with adulthood (i.e. full-time worker, spouse, and parent).