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Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women's Success

reviewed by Anne Douglass - September 20, 2016

coverTitle: Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women's Success
Author(s): Laura T. Hamilton
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022618336X, Pages: 224, Year: 2016
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I teach and study parental engagement in the early childhood education context, so it was fascinating to read Laura T. Hamilton’s in-depth analysis of parents’ role on the other end of the education spectrum, namely higher education. Her book, Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success, offers a new way of thinking about parental involvement during the college years. It discusses important implications for higher education practice and policy, particularly when it comes to educational equity.

This book is based on Hamilton’s study that examines the ways parental values, notions on gender, their social and economic class, and visions for their daughters’ futures contribute to different parenting approaches during the college years. The author is clear from the outset that her research is not generalizable to all parents and college students and she describes a very specific population that was studied. It includes 53 female collegians attending and living on a dormitory floor at a Midwestern, mid-tier, flagship public university. Hamilton conducts an ethnographic study in a dormitory and includes 59 interviews with most of these students and their parents.

Based on her findings, Hamilton introduces us to a typology of parenting behaviors: helicopters, pink helicopters, paramedics, and bystanders. She demonstrates how some approaches perpetuate gender stereotypes and influence outcomes for children. The author contrasts the costs and benefits of each parenting approach for their children’s success within the context of the university where these learners chose to study. For example, Hamilton explains how the bystander parenting approach is "aligned poorly with Midwestern University—a relatively expensive school with weak academic advising, an array of majors of varied quality and market value, and a seductive party scene. Students could not effectively navigate such an institution on their own, without encountering serious roadblocks to mobility" (p. 185).

Hamilton finds that parental involvement and intervention matter both in college and the transition afterwards. Different parenting approaches during college influence various outcomes for these adult children. Using evidence produced by her research, Hamilton argues that class influences parental access to a range of resources helpful for college age children’s success, including financial, intellectual, and social capital.

One of my favorite sections of the book is the final chapter focusing on policy implications and solutions for what Hamilton calls outsourcing responsibility for student success from higher education institutions to families. She argues that higher education is relying increasingly on parents to provide the help students need to navigate college in the face of mounting financial pressures. As a result, parents are relieving schools of this responsibility. The problem is that not all parents are in a position to offer support or are even aware of the need to play this role.

Hamilton shows how many families need a mobility pathway that “levels the playing field for students who lack family advantages" (p.185). This pathway includes ready access to supports and advising that address the whole student, not just academic issues. As the author argues, “[a] healthy mobility pathway reduces the importance of parents for students’ educational and career success, rather than penalizing students who lack parental guidance and support" (p. 186).

As a college professor and member of a higher education community, I know that supports for student success and educational equity are important priorities needing improvement and innovation. I work in an institution serving predominantly first generation and nontraditional college students. I do not typically encounter learners’ parents in my work. Many of the students and families described in this book are not typical of the ones I encounter in my university. However, I see the same need for stronger support for students’ persistence and degree completion. In this way, the call to action in the final chapter addresses broadly applicable insights and lessons.

Parenting to a Degree has important implications regarding the role of parents, parent engagement, and the student support infrastructure in higher education institutions. Hamilton helps us see the many and all-too-often invisible ways that parental involvement matters during college. We know this issue is important and that not all students have equal access to these resources for many reasons. As a result, we are called to strengthen, and in some cases redesign, higher education’s capacity to serve all learners effectively, especially nontraditional and first generation college students.

Many public and private higher education institutions offer models for these supports. For example, some are implementing educational navigators, much like health care navigators, to help students access the resources they need to be successful. Higher education institutions have become increasingly complicated and we cannot expect students to know how to make it through them effectively on their own. Hamilton’s Parenting to a Degree provides a rich qualitative study that helps us understand why these supports matter so much and that they are essential for promoting equity in higher education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 20, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21648, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 10:29:56 AM

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