Operation Varsity Blues, the federal sting that uncovered a bribery conspiracy among parents, coaches and a college recruiter who influenced student admission decisions provided the backdrop for Laura Hamilton’s April 18 lecture at Franklin & Marshall College.
But the associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced, addressed less obvious advantages those with money and social status have as their children attend college. Hamilton spoke during Common Hour, F&M’s community conversation conducted each Thursday classes are in session. She is co-author of “Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality,”and author of “Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College and Beyond.”
Hamilton’s talk was based on both books. “The first one focused primarily on the organization of universities and ways they can support or fail to support students, particularly first-generation students and students from low-income households,” she said. “The second book looks at the relationship of parents to universities, and the ways in which the universities can leverage parents with affluent backgrounds, but leave behind other families.”
She focused her discussion on the second book, asking two questions. First, how do parents matter for students’ college experiences, particularly the transition from college into the labor force? Hamilton said that question often boiled down to “Are the students able to translate their degrees into economic stability?” Her second question was “What role does social class play in forming those experiences?”
Not surprisingly, social class plays a significant role. Hamilton described her research with 41 families – mothers, fathers and their daughters – of various class backgrounds. Affluent parents, acting as the “college concierge,” use resources their wealth affords them to navigate the uncertain pathways of higher education, including arranging academic, social and career support for their children that is not available to others.
Less affluent parents, who describe themselves as “outsiders,” find their socioeconomic status does not afford them such resources. Unlike the “college concierge” parents and their access to college and professional networks they impart to their children, the “outsiders” feel unprepared to help their children, and they find the university unresponsive to their needs.
Hamilton, herself a first-generation college graduate, described the socioeconomic disparity among the parents of her research group.
“You have a father who had a private jet who was a chief financial officer of a major Fortune 500 company and you had somebody who was underemployed picking fruits seasonably or working at a truck stop as a waitress,” she said.
Hamilton said affluent parents deeply involve themselves in their children’s college experience, from directing them to meet regularly with their professors and what to watch out for at social gatherings to what major to choose that provides the most accessible and lucrative career.
The affluent parents’ ability to “hoard” educational opportunity creates inequality for the less affluent, a situation that colleges are largely unwilling to address, she added. She cited the graduation rates of the two groups – 74 percent of affluent students graduated in four years compared to 39 percent of less affluent students.
“Class differences in parenting during college leads to qualitatively different educational experiences,” Hamilton said. “College shouldn’t be about your family class resources.”