High Grades, Low Funds

For the past three decades, the federal government has shifted the burden of paying for higher education onto families. Students now receive more federal aid in loans than in grants, and they need their parents to help pay them off.

Simultaneously, local and state funding of higher education has decreased. And tuition at four-year colleges has increased in price more than almost anything other good or service. Even public schools like UNC, are beginning to operate more like private schools, relying on tuition dollars more heavily than governmental funds.  Parents are shouldering greater sacrifices than ever for their children to go to college.

But are these sacrifices paying off?

More is less?

A recent study from a sociology professor at the University of California Merced found that the greater a parent’s contribution to his students’ college education, the lower the student’s GPA. The study found this was constant across selective and nonselective institutions.

The study jarred with results of past research, which concluded that “more is more” — the more allocations a student receives from their parents, the more academic progress they achieve.

Senior Christian Honeycutt, who has been footing his own tuition bill, is not surprised by Hamilton’s findings. Honeycutt is a religious studies major, working on a year-and-a-half  research project.

But he also spends about 30 to 35 hours a week working at Alpine Bagel. He worked his first shift before his first class freshman year.

Honeycutt pays for all of his own expenses. He said that required proving to the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid that his parents weren’t contributing at all to his education — a feat in itself.

“They made me go through hoops to get it,” he said.

In order to register as independent — a student not receiving any funds from family — one must be an orphan, over the age of 24, a veteran, or married. Honeycutt did not fall into any of these categories.

And the struggle wasn’t over once he gained independent status. At points in his college career, he’s worked up to 80 hours a week, at Alpine and other jobs.

Honeycutt said working requires time management skills other students’ lives might not require.

He said he also is incentivized by the fact he is the sole cost-bearer for his education — or lack thereof. Hamilton’s study suggests moral hazard theory might also explain the  relationship between GPA and parental contribution.The theory says that if a person is not bearing the cost of his actions, they are less likely to act with the cost of their actions in mind.

That also explains why students whose education is funded through merit-based scholarships, work-study, and veterans benefits also have, on average, higher GPAs.
Such funds either come with high performance standards, or require a sense of personal accountability, according to the study.

And students who make it to college without a family-financed safety net might be made of stronger stuff than others.

“Students who make it to college with little to no parental help may not only be exceptionally talented but also uniquely motivated,” Hamilton said in the report.

High GPA doesn’t mean a degree

But although students who contribute more funds to their own education tend to have higher GPAs, they graduate at much lower rates.

Michael Faddis, a PhD student in UNC’s department of sociology, specializes in education. He said a potential weakness of the study is the fact that far fewer students paying their own ways make it to graduation.

He said the study was comparing four groups: students whose  parents who pay for college who succeed academically, students whose  parents don’t pay for college who succeed academically, those with parents pay for college who perform poorly, and those whose  parents don’t pay for college and perform poorly.

“One of those groups is more likely to stop attending college. They’re not doing well, they’re not getting reinforcement from the school, and they’re also not getting any money,” he said.

“So if you lose a big part of that group, it makes that comparison across the four difficult.”

And students’ whose parents are paying for their years at college aren’t necessarily performing worse because they’re lazy. They’re more likely to participate in extracurricular activities — and spend more hours on those than their coursework.

The report said  today’s college students spend an average of 28 hours a week on classes and homework combined, compared to 42 hours on “social and recreational purposes.”

“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, “ Hamilton  said in her study.

And a lot of those extracurriculars are valuable for securing a career after graduation, especially unpaid internships,Faddis said.

“It’s one thing to be able to not worry about paying for books and paying for a place to live,  he said. “[Students whose parents are paying for college] also…are getting all these opportunities to fill their time with things that are more important on the future job market.”

Faddis said that as schools like UNC increasingly shift financial aid to work-study programs, students’ opportunities will become more stratified according to whether or not they need financial aid.

“Working is fine, but they’re having to take these jobs where they’re not getting social capital in particular, which the other students with internships are getting,” he said.

Plus, Honeycutt said, extracurriculars are fun. Not being able to participate in extracurricular activities was one of the hardest parts of working almost full time, he said.

“I’m not involved in freaking any extracurriculars because I don’t have time, and that’s the worst,” he said. “I would’ve done anything. Everything.”

For the next generation

Honeycutt recognizes benefits of having to be independent and manage his time, and said the past four years have been worth the education.  He was selected by Teach for America to teach middle school English in Las Vegas, NV.

But just because it worked out for him doesn’t mean he would make his own children pay for college.

“I would do everything in my power to make sure they didn’t have to do this, he said. “Because sometimes, it’s pretty awful.”