How to Get More Out of College

(Photo: John Walker)

We’ve blogged and podcasted about the value (or lack thereof?) of a college education.  A new paper (summarized here) by sociologist Laura Hamilton suggests one way parents can help their kids get more out of college: help them a little less — with tuition, at least.  Here’s the abstract:

Evidence shows that parental financial investments increase college attendance, but we know little about how these investments shape postsecondary achievement. Two theoretical frameworks suggest diametric conclusions. Some studies operate from a more-is-more perspective in which children use calculated parental allocations to make academic progress. In contrast, a more-is-less perspective, rooted in a different model of rational behavior, suggests that parental investments create a disincentive for student achievement. I adjudicate between these frameworks, using data from nationally representative postsecondary datasets to determine what effect financial parental investments have on student GPA and degree completion. The findings suggest seemingly contradictory processes. Parental aid decreases student GPA, but it increases the odds of graduating—net of explanatory variables and accounting for alternative funding. Rather than strategically using resources in accordance with parental goals, or maximizing on their ability to avoid academic work, students are satisficing: they meet the criteria for adequacy on multiple fronts, rather than optimizing their chances for a particular outcome. As a result, students with parental funding often perform well enough to stay in school but dial down their academic efforts. I conclude by highlighting the importance of life stage and institutional context for parental investment.

“There were some affluent families who thought their children were spoiled and didn’t pay the whole cost, and there were some families who had scrimped and saved and borrowed from family members and taken out loans,” Hamilton told The New York Times. “And the affluent families aren’t hurt the most by the lower grades, because they had the connections to call the head of NBC or the N.F.L. and get their child a job. It’s more of a problem for the middle-class parents, who worked hard to pay the college costs, used up their retirement funds and are out of money by graduation time.”

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

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  1. Harald says:

    Other discussions around the intertubes have pointed out that the effect on GPA is rather small, and that financial support positively affects the rate of graduation, arguably a more important measure. Unless you’re staying in academia, your marks/GPA become irrelevant the day you graduate.

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    • James says:

      Well, no. They become irrelevant once you land your first job. Now what is important (in my experience, anyway), is when and what that first job is. If, like me, you have to work to finance your education, that first job may be a research assistantship or internship which you get before graduation, and which launches you on a career track ahead of those who party on the parents’ dime until graduation, then start job-hunting.

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      • JohnC says:

        Depending on what you do, they’re probably going to be relevant well beyond your first job. Now, at some point your body of work becomes the greatest factor; but, especially where the “next” job is more prestigious/competitive, that’s likely to come somewhere down the line. At every level of my career – two levels of fed clerkships, big law, prosecutor’s office, federal law enforcement, and even within that agency itself – my grades (and the grades of those I’ve hired) have been evaluated.

        It sort of reminds me of the terrible, terrible canard every freshman hears: “Nobody graduates wishing they studied more.” Not that there aren’t students who, for myriad reasons, do wish they’d studied less; it’s just literally not true. I’ve heard plenty of students – at graduation in particular, and usually the ones who lost jobs or grad school slots to those with better grades – literally say, “I should have worked harder.” (I suspect the students most likely to repeat the canard are the same ones whose tuition is paid by someone else.)

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Perhaps that focus on grades is specific to law school. Were your undergrad grades evaluated? They’re far less meaningful, due to grade inflation and instructor variability.

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      • James says:

        John, that may be the defining difference between working in law and working in science/technology.

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  2. J1 says:

    Having been blessed by a full ride mom n’ dad scholarship, I can attest that I was a lazy bum in college and definitely could have gotten better grades than I did. Nevertheless, I did graduate in four years, went on to a job that effectively amounted to graduate school for the job I have now (its hiring process relied more on measures of aptitude for the job than grades), and have done quite well ever since.

    The findings definitely describe my experience.

    I’m intrigued by the “seemingly contradictory” remark. Do higher grades correlate any more strongly with graduation rate than average grades? If so, are they corrected for major?

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    • Casey says:

      Perhaps if someone is failing their classes it could be a determining factor of whether or not that person graduates. However, in my personal experience (I just graduated), if it’s a matter of Cs versus As, it seems as if it wouldn’t affect graduation rates. Also, some people strive for high grades, whereas some people are content with average grades. It seems to me that if a student is content with his or her grades, it wouldn’t affect graduation. But that’s just my perspective, I’m not an expert!!

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    • Casey says:

      that is such a good question!!! Hmmmm!!!

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  3. Casey says:

    What about the effects of scholarship versus financial aid for students?
    I would assume this has psychological effects on the student. If the student is awarded a scholarship, it is an incentive to continue performing well, even though the student isn’t paying for his/her education. If the students is awarded financial aid, neither the student nor the parents have to pay. Would students see this as a “free ride” since it comes with no strings attached in terms of academic and extra curricular performance? How does the psychological effects of scholarship versus financial aid affect student performance in this case of “More is More or More is Less”?

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  4. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Having been embarrassingly immature when I went to college (in the late 1960′s…). I can recommend that most students work at something for a few years before going to college. The military could be good.

    Then DON’T start college in any decade with:

    Hippies (I was one) grass, psychedelics, the birth control pill, free love, rock and roll, racial equality demonstrations, the race to the Moon, Vietnam, peace demonstrations, see-through blouses, gay rights movements, radical feminists, bra burnings, and an 18-yr-old drinking age. Kent state, campus riots, and assassinations…

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    • J1 says:

      We might lose some good people in the process, but if every person in this country who attended college between 1966 and 1972 was kept out of any position of power or authority, the world would be a better place.

      Gotta disagree with part of your list; birth control pills, free love and see through blouses shouldn’t be on it.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Easy availability of birth control pills, free love and see-through blouses might be causally associated with poor academic performance in some males (specifically, the ones who have trouble thinking about anything other than sex).

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      • James says:

        Not at all. If sex is readily available, most of us don’t spend all that much time thinking about it. It’s when it’s scarce that we devote time & effort to attempts to obtain it, diverting them from less immediately important matters. Not all that different from any other good, I think. As for instance why you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re really hungry…

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      • Eric M. Jones. says:

        J1: “Gotta disagree with part of your list; birth control pills, free love and see through blouses shouldn’t be on it.”

        My list here is only “the major distraction from my studies”. I could add more. You choose your own.

        [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

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    • J1 says:

      1. Guilty
      2. Might?

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  5. Taylor says:

    Being a college student who does receive money from my own parents when I need it, and let me emphasize on the need part of that statement. My parents do not pay my tuition and they do not pay for my books,but rather they are parents who help their “broke college kid” when she does not have gas or food money. My schooling is paid for with scholarship money from being an athlete, Chickasaw Indian Higher Education, and Pell Grant money. Those scholarships do however come with a price, in order to keep the scholarship I must maintain a specifice grade point or higher, and I have to be in class in exception of when I have games or an emergency. On the other hand, I have been a student who didnt have scholarships at one point and I will say that I was not as motivated to attend class, to do my work, or to study when I had a test, I was wasting my parents money. Maturity took its toll and I began to be an adult and stand on my own two feet. I foudn a way to pay for my school with scholarships and I now do not ask my parents for money but they do give it to me when they know I “need” it.
    This article is stating that with parents help that students are more apt to graduate from college but that their GPA will be lower than if they pay for school on their own. Economically, a model could show this very precisely, scarcity in money will lead students to drop out of school, if you cannot afford it, you choose, work or school, a definition of opportunity cost. Most people are forced to choose work when their resources are scarce. I can agree that if you are providing the cost for your schooling on your own, you will work harder because it is your money and you know the importance of the loss. When looking at it the other way, if you know they mommy and daddy will foot the bill for your tuition, books, food, gas, etc., then a student will not feel the importance of the cost that the family is losing to provide an education, not all but most young people will abuse the right to have the opportunity to get their school paid for, they will be more likely to skip class, not work their hardest, and their GPA will go down because of laziness and lack of work ethic.

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  6. Russell Harris says:

    Did the authors consider that self-funded students, having consciously decided to undergo short-term financial pain (rather than getting a job) would work harder to achieve their goals at college?

    And it makes sense that this group might drop out earlier if the money runs out (or they judge the pain is not worth the gain).

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    • J1 says:

      Depends on what you majored in. I agree many majors are a complete waste of time, but there are still many that are worth it.

      Also, when it comes to college expense, the ROI curve is bi-modal. If you can’t go to a top school, you should pay as little as possible, and stick with a terminal degree (namely engineering) or something with a clear path into grad school.

      I wouldn’t waste time or money on grad school unless you plan to go into academia (get a real PhD), work for the government (buy a masters from a diploma mill), are pursuing some field you love and don’t (necessarily) care about ROI, or can get into a top school where a graduate degree has a good ROI. It’s worth coughing up way more than 100K for the last, but you need to be in a major that won’t require you to live on a trust fund afterwards.

      If your college cost is centered between the peaks you’re probably wasting your time and money.

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    • James says:

      Crap that hasn’t changed in a humdred years? What the heck did you major in, Latin? Sure wasn’t Engineering, Computer Science, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Medicine…

      So instead of people willing to buckle down and do hard work, you’d rather have more “entrepreneurs”, 9 out of 10 of whom are basically scam artists trying to convince consumers to buy yet another piece of overpriced crap because it’s an iSomething.

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  8. mfw13 says:

    Pretty much every student in the US would benefit from taking a gap year in order to figure out a little bit more about what they want to do with their lives, much like many Europeans do.

    There’s no rule that says to have to start college right after you finish high school.

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