Research Findings

Social class matters at college. What happened when campuses shut down?


December 15, 2022

Relationships with parents are a powerful—yet often hidden—source of inequality among college students.

Sociologists have extensively studied parental support in college, demonstrating how parents’ unequal socioeconomic resources produce inequalities on campus. For example, recent studies describe affluent and educated parents paying for tuition, coaching students how to interact with faculty, providing and funding internships, and editing résumés—forms of assistance not typically available to students whose parents did not attend college. However, we know less about how young adults themselves expect, negotiate, or attach meaning to these forms of parental support or how this varies across social class.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic.

As sociologists have long recognized, major disruptions—heat waves, hurricanes, and the like—can offer novel insight into social processes that are otherwise difficult to observe. The COVID-19 pandemic upended US higher education and thrust a generation of college students into a state of crisis. Thus, it provided an ideal context to examine how students seek help from parents.

In a new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, I leverage the case of COVID-19 campus closings to examine social class differences in young adults’ understandings and experiences of parental support—as well as the implications for inequality.

Privileged dependence, precarious autonomy 

My interviews with 48 working-class and upper-middle-class college students during the early months of the pandemic revealed striking class differences in these students’ relationships with parents.

In this period of heightened fear and uncertainty, upper-middle-class students typically turned to parents for security and reassurance—a pattern that I call “privileged dependence.” In contrast, working-class students demonstrated “precarious autonomy” as they tried to figure things out on their own. Some even provided help to other family members along the way.

Two factors led to these differences. First, there were class differences in students’ understandings of parental authority. Second, there were class differences in the weight students gave to family members’ needs and interests. Together, these factors shaped students’ decisions about where to live and how to interact with their families.

Who decides what to do?

Upper-middle-class students generally saw their parents as having the final say over major life decisions, whereas working-class students typically felt they could decide for themselves. These different perceptions of parents’ authority shaped how students responded to pandemic-related disruptions, especially decisions about where to live when their university suddenly instructed students to vacate the campus in March 2020.

Gladly or grudgingly, upper-middle-class students typically followed parents’ directions for travel, housing, and safety precautions. One reason was that these parents had financial leverage because they were paying all or most of their children’s college expenses. Many upper-middle-class students also thought their parents “knew more” than they did. For example, Margot told me:

I remember getting home and feeling such a weight taken off of my shoulders because I was like, “This is such a controlled space. I’m very happy weathering it out here because I feel like my parents know what’s up.

In contrast, few working-class students expected their parents to tell them what was safe or thought it was necessary to gain parents’ approval for their housing choices. In working-class families, parents often had little to no financial leverage. As Taylor said about her dad:

It all just comes back to this incredible thing, which is: if you don’t give me money, then I don’t have to listen to you.

Some working-class students withheld information about their plans from parents, either to spare them worry or to avoid hearing their opinions. For example, Shelton told me that he did not consult his parents about housing decisions because:

I feel like I’ve become very autonomous. … I don’t want to add more stress to [my parents] because they’re already very stressed out. … I usually handle everything on my own, and I have done so pretty much since I started college.

Thus, while for upper-middle-class students, it was clearly their parents’ decision where they would live during the pandemic, working-class students viewed the decision as their own, not their parents’.

Differences in decision factors

In addition to shaping the balance of power, social class shaped which factors students weighed when deciding where to live and how to interact with their parents. Whereas upper-middle-class students emphasized the comfort and protection that parents could provide for them, working-class students actively considered parents’ needs and vulnerabilities. 

Many working-class students expressed a sense of responsibility to protect their parents from exposure to COVID-19, to provide financial support, or to help care for other family members. For example, a working-class student named Ashley described how she ran the household—shopping, cooking, and managing her younger siblings’ remote schooling—while her mom worked retail. Ashley used her own money to supplement the grocery budget and purchase learning supplies and toys for her siblings. She told me,

It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing that I was [at home] to help, but it definitely impaired my studies. 

Ashley was acutely aware of the contrast between her experience and that of her more privileged peers. She was shocked to see upper-middle-class parents clearly catering to students’ needs in the background of the Zoom screens.

[My upper-middle-class peers are] still considered kids. … It’s still very much a position of like, “I’m your parent, what can I do to help you?” … There are other people [like me] who are like, “What can you do to help your parents?” Because they’re the ones experiencing the difficulty, and all you have to do is log onto this online class and do X amount of reading or whatever it is you have to do for your class.

Indeed, many of the upper-middle-class students I spoke to described their parents cooking meals, doing laundry, ensuring that chores didn’t interfere with academics, providing academic advice and assistance, purchasing learning technology, upgrading the home WiFi, and, in one case, even hiring an in-person tutor.

These findings suggest mechanisms of inequality.

There were clear short-term benefits to upper-middle-class students’ dependence on parents during the pandemic. For example, whereas many upper-middle-class students told me that they were maintaining or even building savings while living with parents, many working-class students described struggling to make ends meet. And while upper-middle-class students typically enjoyed protected time and quiet workspaces, working-class students encountered more caregiving responsibilities and environmental distractions.

In sum, upper-middle-class parents’ greater socioeconomic resources and the shared assumption that students would continue to rely on these resources protected upper-middle-class students from a variety of financial and academic disruptions. These protections may yield longer-term payoffs, thus amplifying inequalities between students.

Overall, my findings add to growing evidence that COVID-19 exacerbated inequality in US society. They also highlight the need to consider students’ relationships with parents in understanding inequality among college students—both within and beyond the context of the pandemic.  

Read more

Elena G. van Stee. “Privileged Dependence, Precarious Autonomy: Parent/Young Adult Relationships through the Lens of COVID‐19.” Journal of Marriage and Family 2022.

image: Adrian van Stee

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