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Parenting to a Degree

How Family Matters for College Women’s Success

Helicopter parents—the kind that continue to hover even in college—are one of the most ridiculed figures of twenty-first-century parenting, criticized for creating entitled young adults who boomerang back home. But do involved parents really damage their children and burden universities? In this book, sociologist Laura T. Hamilton illuminates the lives of young women and their families to ask just what role parents play during the crucial college years.
Hamilton vividly captures the parenting approaches of mothers and fathers from all walks of life—from a CFO for a Fortune 500 company to a waitress at a roadside diner. As she shows, parents are guided by different visions of the ideal college experience, built around classed notions of women’s work/family plans and the ideal age to “grow up.” Some are intensively involved and hold adulthood at bay to cultivate specific traits: professional helicopters, for instance, help develop the skills and credentials that will advance their daughters’ careers, while pink helicopters emphasize appearance, charm, and social ties in the hopes that women will secure a wealthy mate. In sharp contrast, bystander parents—whose influence is often limited by economic concerns—are relegated to the sidelines of their daughter’s lives. Finally, paramedic parents—who can come from a wide range of class backgrounds—sit in the middle, intervening in emergencies but otherwise valuing self-sufficiency above all.
Analyzing the effects of each of these approaches with clarity and depth, Hamilton ultimately argues that successfully navigating many colleges and universities without involved parents is nearly impossible, and that schools themselves are increasingly dependent on active parents for a wide array of tasks, with intended and unintended consequences. Altogether, Parenting to a Degree offers an incisive look into the new—and sometimes problematic—relationship between students, parents, and universities. 

224 pages | 1 figure, 10 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Education: Higher Education

Sociology: Social Institutions, Social Organization--Stratification, Mobility, Sociology--Marriage and Family


“Book of the week. . . . Nothing beats a piece of good empirical sociology, as the data suck you in and tell their own compelling story. Writing well in this style is an art form, and few people manage to pull it off. In Parenting to a Degree, Laura Hamilton does so beautifully. . . . Parenting beyond the age of 18 matters more than ever because how parents approach their children’s undergraduate years shapes the life chances of young adults, and can set them on markedly different trajectories. But what this study also reveals is the extent to which universities depend, in part, on the availability of parental support and labour to ensure that students successfully complete their degrees. Hamilton ably demonstrates that we too often see degree success as based on individual merit when, in reality, it is driven by the nature of the partnerships between families and the universities, and that too often students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds find themselves struggling to make their way with the least help.”

Times Higher Education

“By the end of the project, Hamilton had acquired a deep understanding of family dynamics and attitudes, and powerful insights into why some students succeed while others fail, and the part that parents play in shaping outcomes. . . . Her analysis is nuanced enough to avoid determinism. And there is real class diversity here. . . . Hamilton skillfully draws out the telling similarities and differences between the parents within each group. . . . Hamilton’s book demonstrates the value of zooming in close in order to gain wider insight.”

Times Literary Supplement

“[A] richly detailed analysis of the relationships between young college women and their parents to reveal how parenting matters for college outcomes….A unique strength of the book is its ability to illuminate how parents’ social class and beliefs about gender shape their parenting practices….[T]his book will undoubtedly join the ranks of recent high-profile books raising important questions and provoking debates about the future and mission of American higher education. Hamilton’s accessible and eloquent writing makes the book a pleasure to read. Beyond those in the academy, parents and students will gain valuable insights as they reflect on their own parenting approaches and college experiences.”


“Marshaling insights from the parents of a cohort of young women moving through a public research university, Parenting to a Degree shows—in graphic, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking detail—how substantial parental investments are in what we often imagine is the ideal four-year college experience. It makes clear that persistence in college and early forays into the labor market are joint ventures between young people and their families, and that gender and class identities strongly shape how adults decide to support their children. These are pivotal contributions to our understanding of American higher education.”

Mitchell Stevens, author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites

Parenting to a Degree offers a transformative account of why and how college parenting matters. A skillful and caring interviewer, Hamilton reports on how social class, gender, and cultural expectations shape parents’ varied involvement with their children’s education. A pioneering contribution to the field of education.”

Viviana A. Zelizer, author of Economic Lives.

“This book is a page-turner, revealing how daughters’ successful navigation of college so often depends on their parents’ continuing investment of intensive effort, money, connections, and knowledge. Parents’ varied visions and approaches, Hamilton vividly shows, often reproduce their own experiences and, in doing so, reproduce—or deepen—class inequalities. Parenting to a Degree is an outstanding contribution to scholarly work and should be used in today’s pressing policy debates about inequality in higher education.”

Naomi Gerstel, coauthor of Unequal Time

"Laura T. Hamilton’s thought-provoking book Parenting to a Degree explores how some parents get way too involved in their children’s college careers. . . . this book is a good read. It sheds light on the way we live now, at least for some people in the United States, and it connects the macrolevel of social stratification to the microlevel of the lives of individual people and the inner workings of family relations."

American Journal of Sociology

Table of Contents


1 Five Visions of College 

Part I: Parenting Approaches

2 Helicopters 
3 Paramedics
4 Bystanders

Part II: Parenting Consequences

5 Funding Fun
6 Predictability or Possibility
7 Failed by the University
8 College Outsourced

Methodological Appendix: Studying Parenting
Appendix A: Parents and Daughters


ASA Section on Sociology of Education: Pierre Bourdieu Award

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