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Who’s the Grown-up Here?

I remember it vividly, like it was just yesterday.

I was a first-year PhD student in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. It was March 2020. Like many students, I had been traveling for spring break—then, like many (privileged) students, I ended up spending the rest of the spring 2020 semester sheltering in place in my childhood bedroom.

Having spent the better part of my first year of graduate school studying inequality in families and educational institutions, I was acutely aware that class privilege was shaping my experience of COVID-19 lockdowns. In the days and weeks after Penn sent almost all its students off-campus, I heard countless stories of other students struggling to find housing arrangements, pay for groceries, and access the technology necessary to participate in virtual classes—challenges I was mostly insulated from.

The heightened inequality, risk, and uncertainty introduced by the pandemic was exposing how college students from different class backgrounds seek help from their parents. Studies from sociologists, including Annette Lareau, Elizabeth Armstrong, and Laura Hamilton, demonstrate that parents are unequally positioned to provide the kind of support that facilitates college persistence and achievement. Yet our discipline has paid less attention to young adults’ expectations for parents’ roles in this stage of their lives—or how this may vary across social class.

Working from a folding table in my parents’ basement that March, I designed a qualitative interview study. Through it, I hoped to understand how undergraduates from different social class backgrounds were navigating the transition to remote instruction, focusing on parents’ roles. I interviewed 48 working- and upper-middle-class undergraduates from an elite residential university in the American northeast, along with ten mothers (five from each class group).

When I began the project, I expected to observe inequalities in the material resources parents could provide for their children—plane tickets, learning technology, help with living expenses, etc. And I certainly did. But the class divides I observed went beyond immediate resource constraints. As I wrote for the Journal of Marriage and Family, the factors that students weighed when deciding where to live and how to interact with their families also reflected class-specific understandings of their parents’ authority, their own entitlement to their parents’ resources, and their obligations to help and protect their families.

Most upper-middle-class students in my sample turned to their parents for reassurance, guidance, and assistance—demonstrating what I term privileged dependence. Conversations about housing in these families often explored where the student would learn best and where their parents could best take care of them. Here, the student’s needs and interests took priority. Upper-middle-class parents’ greater socioeconomic resources and the shared assumption that students would continue to rely on their parents for support shielded those students from many academic and financial disruptions during the tumultuous transition to virtual instruction.

By contrast, less privileged students exhibited what I call a precarious autonomy. Working-class students typically saw themselves as responsible for figuring things out on their own, and many in this group expressed a sense of freedom rooted in their financial independence from their parents. Even so, these students’ awareness of their parents’ needs, limitations, and vulnerabilities deeply shaped their decisions. Many expressed fears of being a financial burden, a COVID risk, or an inconvenience to their families. Some declined to live with their parents because they knew their homes would be too cramped or noisy to provide a good study space. Some were struggling to keep up with school as they took on new caregiving responsibilities and encountered financial and environmental barriers to participating in virtual classes. Thus, working-class students were denied a variety of academic and financial protections available to their upper-middle-class peers.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique crisis in our time—one that, according to the WHO’s recent declaration, is now over. But I found that understanding the housing decisions students made during the pandemic offered insights into social class, young adulthood, and intergenerational relationships that have ongoing sociological and policy relevance.

Students’ decisions about where to live and how to interact with families during the crisis reflected different expectations about parents’ roles, including understandings about who was in charge and who was responsible for protecting whom in the transition to adulthood. To the extent that similar classed patterns of dependence and autonomy emerge in response to other challenges and crises, prolonged dependence on parents seems likely to yield further socioeconomic advantages for privileged students. Thus, my conversations throughout this study underscored that understanding educational inequalities—and designing policies to address them—requires an understanding of how students are embedded in families and communities and how they think about their rights and responsibilities within them.

Read the full article here and watch for my feature article in Contexts’ summer issue!

Elena G. van Stee is in the sociology program at the University of Pennsylvania. The blog editor for Contexts, she studies culture and inequality, focusing on social class, families, and the transition to adulthood.


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