- Increasing numbers of individuals aspire to, seek out, and need a college degree in order to be competitive in the job market (Goyette, 2008; U.S. Department of Education, 2013). College degrees provide access to economic, social, and health benefits (Abel & Deitz, 2014; Autor, 2014). The United States also needs more college educated citizens to fill employment demands (Lumina Foundation for Education, 2010). Despite the increased amount of college-seeking students and the country’s need for more college graduates, post-secondary institutions also face stress in meeting enrollment goals (Bidwell, 2013; Burd, 2015). These realities make the college planning process an important area of investigation.One aspect of this process is the role of parents in their children’s development of college-going expectations and college planning. Both within popular press and scholarly research, parents are lauded as a key mechanism for leveraging college opportunities for their children (Cohen, 2012; Mullen, 2010). Children of parents who have the time and means to be more involved in their education and college planning are more likely to enter college (Perna & Titus, 2005). For example, enrollment rates are higher for children of parents with knowledge of the financial aid system, admissions criteria, and other mechanisms of the process (Charles, Roscigno, & Torres, 2007; Hossler, Schmit, & Vesper, 1999; D. H. Kim & Schneider, 2005; Tierney, 2002). Parents experiencing financial strain and competing financial demands, such as retirement savings, may be less likely to provide support to their children (Napolitano, Pacholok, & Furstenberg, 2014). Despite evidence of their importance, it is less clear why and how parents develop college-going expectations and provide support. Further investigation of the influence of parents’ contexts on their role in this process and the support they can provide is warranted. The dissertation asked the following research questions: Manuscript 1: What do parents see college and a college degree providing for their children? How do parents’ own life experiences influence those thoughts and expectations? Manuscript 2: How do parents view, and support children in, college preparation and planning? How do these views and supports differ by parent and family characteristics? To answer these research questions, the study conducted 35 semi-structured interviews with parents of 35 college-bound high school seniors. Parents of high school seniors were at the end of the college planning process. This allowed for reflection on the role parents played. The sample came from two high schools within a Northwestern city of approximately 55,000 people.The results from the first manuscript report parents’ own school, work, and life experiences were important factors in shaping their college-going expectations for their children. For parents without a four-year degree, or did not earn one until later in life, a degree provides the means towards a stable, middle-class lifestyle. Parents recalled struggles because of limited prospects they do not wish their children to experience. Parents with two- and four-year degrees that experienced relative stability and sometimes success in work and home want the same for their children. Some parents emphasized the importance of gaining a specific credential for job placement, while others emphasized the general importance that furthering one’s education provides within any area of the job market. College-educated parents specifically mentioned the role college could provide in allowing for personal growth and perspective taking for their children.The second manuscript found parents felt supports provided very early in their children’s lives were critical to ensuring college access. Many academically socialized their children by stressing the importance of education. They made efforts to align their expectations with a positive environment for their children to grow. In high school, parents often discussed the selection of courses and ways to be competitive on their college application. For many of these families, this process was one of trial and error. They often learned from mistakes made from their older children’s transitions, which helped provide better support to their younger ones. Families with greater resources were able to provide more opportunities for their children, including the ability to visit colleges and the option to explore private and out-of-state institutions. For low- and middle-income families, particularly when the child was immature and lacked clarity on their desired career field, community college was often suggested and ultimately selected. All families were cost-conscious, making opportunities for aid important in perceived options and final selections. Together the two manuscripts highlight important ways parents provide support to their children to encourage college enrollment. Parents’ expectations, and the shape those expectations take, guided their parenting practices. The results suggest all parents, regardless of socio-economic position, can invest in their children’s education and set high expectations they hope for them to meet. However, more resourced families are better able to align expectations to environment. They are also more likely to be able to provide additional options to their children, both in college preparation and decisions. It is important for high schools, postsecondary educational institutions, and policy makers to understand that all families struggled at one point in the college planning process, and assuming more resourced families do not need much support is misguided. For all families, clearer policies on what parents and their children should be doing to prepare for college, as well as obtainable options for those families, given financial, personal, and academic factors, is needed.
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