Privileged Dependence, Precarious Autonomy: Parental Support Through the Lens of COVID-19

Thumbnail Image
Penn collection
Penn Education and Inequality Working Papers
Degree type
social class
educational disruption
educational sociology
in-depth interviews
elite universities
higher education
labor market
parental support
Educational Sociology
Family, Life Course, and Society
Inequality and Stratification
Medicine and Health
Social and Behavioral Sciences
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank Laurin Bixby, Alec Gershberg, Emily Hannum, Lauren Harris, Olivia Hu, Joyce Kim, Barbara Kiviat, Demie Kurz, Annette Lareau, Hyunjoon Park, Wendy Roth, Jennifer Silva, Jack Thornton, Andres Villatoro, and the members of the University of Pennsylvania's Education and Inequality workshop for their helpful advice and feedback on this project. I am also deeply grateful for the research assistance of Karolyn DeKam, Kirstin Montsma, Kassandra Schwartz, Melissa VanDerHart, Susan Van Winkle, David Van Winkle, Victoria Verhulst, and Rebekah Yurschak. This project was supported by grants from Penn's Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Immigration and Penn's School of Arts and Sciences Student Government (SASGov), as well as by a scholarship from the Bassi Foundation. I am also grateful for Kate Epstein's editorial assistance and for the financial support of the Institute of Education Sciences Predoctoral Training Fellowship Program under award #3505B200035 to the University of Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed are my own and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.
Grant number
Copyright date
Related resources

Objective: This article identifies how undergraduates’ responses to educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic were shaped by social class differences in their relationships with parents. Background: The mechanisms through which parents transmit class advantages to children are often hidden from view and therefore remain imperfectly understood. This study leverages the unique context of the COVID-19 pandemic to examine how young adults from different social class backgrounds expect, negotiate, and attach meaning to parental support in a time of crisis. Method: This study draws from in-depth interviews with a convenience sample of 48 Black and White upper-middle and working-class undergraduates from a single elite university, along with 10 of their mothers. Results: Facing pandemic-related disruptions, upper-middle-class students typically sought substantial direction and material assistance from parents. In contrast, working-class students typically assumed more responsibility for their own—and sometimes other family members’—well-being. These classed patterns of “privileged dependence” and “precarious autonomy” were shaped by students’ understandings of family members’ authority, needs, and responsibilities. Conclusion: Upper-middle-class students’ expectations for extended dependence on parents functioned as a protective force, enabling them to benefit financially and academically from parents’ material and cultural resources. These protections—which were not available to their working-class peers—may yield cumulative advantages as students progress through higher education and enter the labor market.

Date Range for Data Collection (Start Date)
Date Range for Data Collection (End Date)
Digital Object Identifier
Series name and number
Publication date
Volume number
Issue number
Publisher DOI
Journal Issue
This paper has been published in a journal here: van Stee, E. G. (2022). Privileged dependence, precarious autonomy: Parent/young adult relationships through the lens of COVID-19. Journal of Marriage and Family, 1– 18.
Recommended citation