Are Your Parents Rich? Science Says You’ll Be Less Successful in College

According to a study by Laura Hamilton, a sociologist at the University of California at Merced, the spawn of rich people are less likely to achieve high GPAs in college. According to the New York Times:

Students from wealthy families are more likely than those from poor families to go to college, and those whose parents pay their way are more likely to graduate. But according to More Is More or More Is Less? Parent Financial Investments During College, a study by Laura Hamilton, a sociology professor at the University of California, Merced, greater parental contributions were linked with lower grades across all kinds of four-year institutions.

“It’s a modest effect, not big enough to make the kid flunk out of college,” said Dr. Hamilton, whose study was published in this month’s American Sociological Review. “But it was surprising because everybody has always assumed that the more you give, the better your child does.”

The negative impact on grades was less at elite institutions than at other private, expensive, out-of-state colleges. The higher graduation rate of students whose parents paid their way is not surprising, she said, since many students leave college for financial reasons.

Dr. Hamilton suggested that students who get a blank check from their parents may not take their education as seriously as others. … Dr. Hamilton found that the students with the lowest grades were those whose parents paid for them without discussing the students’ responsibility for their education. Parents could minimize the negative effects, she said, by setting clear expectations about grades and progress toward graduation.


In otherwords, upper class kids are much more likely to actually attend and stay in college, but not necessarily do anything to distinguish themselves academically while there. These are the kids that are perfectly content spending $45,000 a year to “just get by.” Mediocrity is the new “making it” I guess? Depends on what your ambitions are.

Furthermore, some in academia are suggesting rich parents “paying for the party” is actually hurting the overall quality of the American higher education system. Via Inside Higher Ed:

Hamilton may be prompting a lot of uncomfortable discussions between parents and college-age children this year. In April, Harvard University Press will be publishing a book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality that she wrote with Elizabeth A. Armstrong, associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. That book argues that affluent students — very much encouraged by their colleges and universities — waste time and opportunities in college on “a party pathway” organized by the Greek system. The work argues that students who bypass the system may suffer social costs, but are likely to emerge with a much better education. Further Armstrong argues that the party system present at institutions with the affluent students to afford it ends up hurting the educational experience of all students.


College is really just a microcosm of society as a whole. The “haves” skirt by doing as little work as possible to maintain their wealthy socioeconomic status (…of course not everyone is like that). Some of the “have nots” work their asses off to become “haves.” Some succeed, some fail. It's the circle of life.

However, Armstrongs criticism of college's “party pathway” and parents “paying for the party” is completely lost on me. Partying was not a matter of “haves” or “have nots” at the state school I attended, but more the universal equalizer despite SES. Sure, rich students AND the lesser off generally stick to their own, but at the end of the day, you both end up drinking together at the same downtown bars. Looking back five years after graduation, everyone I know from backgrounds in both income brackets is doing just fine. Probably because the social bonds formed at college have proved to be just — if not more — valuable than some completely forgettable test score. 

Sadly, the value of social capital — especially after college — is completely overlooked in both studies. That's a shame, since the value of one's relationships made in college can be just as determining a factor for “success” as a GPA. In the real world, outside the campus quad, does “college success” really matter? In some cases, sure. In many more cases, no one really cares.

So go ahead… Have another beer. As long as you have some sort of driving personal motivation that kicks you in the ass every morning, you'll be fine.