The BYU team recruited college students between the ages of 18 and 26 from four universities to take the online survey in the 2007-08 academic year. One was a small private college in Maryland, and the others were large public universities: two in the Midwest and one in California. They deliberately avoided using a Utah school because they were concerned a preponderance of students from Mormon families would skew the results.
Sixty-two percent of the students were female, and three-fourths were white. The average age was almost 20. None was married, and 90 percent lived outside their parents' home.
Participants and one of their parents, mostly moms, answered lengthy questionnaires eliciting information about income level; the cost of attending college; how much assistance parents provided on a four-point scale; hours per week the students devoted to paid employment; how often they consumed alcohol; how often they "binge" drank, that is, imbibing four or more alcoholic beverage in one occasion; and how often they smoked marijuana and tobacco. The survey posed questions regarding student's occupational goals and the extent to which they and their parents considered them adults. It did not seek to determine how well the students were doing academically.
Researchers found parents covered tuition, books and housing for half the students sampled, while one-third received little or no financial support. Because their data provided only a snapshot into the students' lives, they couldn't establish causal connections. But the BYU scholars believe their findings suggest a middle ground, somewhere between full and minimal support, is the best approach for parents to take.
"Parents who are in position to help should provide a level of support that facilitates progress toward graduation while enabling children to become invested in their own education by contributing to the cost of getting a degree," said co-author Larry Nelson.
The correlations that surfaced suggest that providing complete financial support could undermine students' drive to become independent, encourage risky behaviors and provide time to indulge in "potentially unhealthy experimentation."
"It's giving kids a license to do some exploration in risk behaviors," Padilla-Walker said. "They aren't seriously exploring their future. They are floundering."
Meanwhile, students who received the least support were more likely to think of themselves as adults, perhaps because they are so concentrated on meeting financial obligations.
"They have neither the time nor the resources to engage in experimentation and exploration in other areas with the combined results being that they feel more like an adult than do their peers," the scholars wrote. The downside, according to prior research, is that financial strains put students at greater risk of dropping out.
Padilla-Walker's advice to parents: "Find a balance."
"You don't have to feel you have to pay for everything," she said.