College kids party harder if mom and dad pay for school, BYU study finds

Published: Tuesday, April 17 2012 2:23 p.m. MDT

Professor Larry Nelson doesn't just study the topic — he's living it. His daughter Jessica, left, just wrapped up her first year at BYU.

BYU

PROVO — A third of college students are on their own financially. On the other end of the spectrum, a fourth get a full-ride scholarship from the Bank of Mom and Dad.

New BYU research shows emerging adults do best in the middle, when parents and students each contribute to the cost of a college education.

Students whose parents pay for everything, including entertainment, are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like drinking and substance abuse, the researchers found. That hard partying is less likely among students who receive no financial help, but previous studies have suggested that those totally on their own have a harder time completing their degree.

"Our work suggests that parents may be determining factors in influencing the trajectory of their children's development into adulthood," they wrote in the study, published in the Journal of Adult Development.

The researchers, Laura Walker-Padilla and Larry Nelson, both associate professors at Brigham Young University's School of Family Life, gathered data from 402 students at three large public universities and a small private college and from one of each student's parents to see how much parents contribute to a student's education, living and entertainment costs and what portion of the load students bear. They found parents cover the cost of tuition, books and housing for half the students they surveyed. One-third get little or no help with any of the costs associated with college. And one-fourth get everything, even an entertainment allowance. None of those surveyed were BYU students.

Transitioning to adulthood

The study is one of the first to show that the level of financial involvement parents have with their children has a relationship to how well they are doing in other ways, Walker-Padilla said. Among a steady stream of discussion by experts on emerging adults and what makes them flourish or flounder, the question of financial support has been a gaping hole in the picture, she noted.

In one group, they found that parents provide little in the way of help with school costs like tuition, but give a lot of support for daily expenses and recreation. Nelson told the Deseret News they didn't verify it, but they suspected those students had scholarships and didn't need financial help for academic costs.

As for the drinking, partying and other risky behaviors, students who receive a free ride from mom and dad have both the resources and the time to party, Nelson said. But while it might be easy to think that providing no support is the best way to discourage such behaviors, that seems to come with a downside, too. While students who work long hours to support themselves and pay college costs do have the lowest level of high-risk behaviors like drinking, he said other research says they are also the least likely to graduate and they have the lowest incomes when they start jobs. They struggle to make ends meet and their resumes don't look as good, so they typically get lower starting salaries. They are, however, more likely to view themselves as adults.

The best approach is a mixed one, Nelson said, with parents providing some, but not all support, and students investing in their own education, as well. Balance is important, he noted.

Finding balance

"From infancy on up, there are three things that matter — warmth and support, autonomy granting and expectations or limit-setting." The portion of each shifts as a child matures. When a child heads to college, "some support is still needed to help launch that child. But if you are providing and indulging, it's beyond support. If there's no expectation (the student) will contribute, you haven't hit the right balance," Nelson said.

The researchers also identified questions that still need to be answered, such as whether the effects of receiving little financial help from parents differ "depending on whether or not they feel supported in other ways." The context of how and why parents offer monetary support and whether they offer other kinds of support needs more study, as well, they said. And they noted that it's possible that the level of parental financial support is also directly influenced by children's behaviors, something they did not address.

The study data came from Project Ready, which is a broad effort to look at the transition to adulthood.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: loisco

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