Should You Support Your Kids in College?

July 5th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

How parents’ financial support correlates to parent-child relationships.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

If you’re struggling with how to responsibly support your college-aged kids, some new information from the Population Association of America (PAA) might help.

As USA Today reports, a study by the PAA found that more than 60 percent of today’s young adults receive or have received financial help from their parents. About 42 percent of parents help adult children pay their bills, 33 percent help with college tuition, 23 percent help with vehicle expenses, and 22 percent help with rent away from home, researchers found. Eighty-two percent of higher-income parents ($99,910 or more a year) provide help vs. 47 percent with incomes of less than $37,274. Yet, lower-income parents contributed as great a share of their overall incomes – about 10 percent.

Here’s the catch: According to the study, parents play favorites. The analysis, conducted in 2005, 2007 and 2009 and based on more than 2,000 interviews with kids and their parents, found that some were more likely to get help than others. Children whose parents said they were cheerful and got along well with others before age 12 were more likely to receive financial gifts as young adults. In families with more than one child, lead author Patrick Wightman of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor wrote, “If they perceive one of those kids to have a better attitude or to be more self-reliant, that kid has higher odds of receiving this type of support.”

According to The Arizona Republic, a similar study with more than 11,000 young adults found that 18- to 34-year-olds feel emotionally closer to parents who help them financially. That’s not to say that parents need to pay for their kids’ affection; rather, a parent’s financial help represents “a sort of continual reassurance.” 

But that’s not to suggest that such help is not without its limits. Larry Nelson, an associate professor of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, addresses the polar ends of the parental support spectrum: total reliance on Mom and Dad vs. no financial help at all. His study in the current issue of the Journal of Adult Development found that when parents covered all expenses, “Their children worked the fewest hours and were engaged in the greatest number of risk behaviors,” such as binge drinking, smoking and marijuana use. Young adults who received no financial support from parents “were working the highest number of hours just trying to make money and survive,” he told USA Today. But they also burn out: “They don’t finish school and have lower starting salaries.” 

Where do you fall on helping kids financially through college? Should they fend for themselves, get a free ride, or a modest supplement?