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The launch pad: Middle class families and the transition to college

Elizabeth Hope Souza, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation investigates the transition to college. It examines why and how middle class families choose college and factors that shape the decisions of mothers, fathers and their departing children. In addition, it explores the changes that parents experience as longstanding identities shift when children leave home, a process I have labeled role transformation from primary to secondary parenthood. Finally, it considers consequences for the parents' relationship to one another, and gender-based outcomes for parents as they themselves are launched into the next phase of their lives. The research is based upon interviews I conducted with parents and children in twenty middle class families. During stage one, I interviewed mothers, fathers and children individually the summer following the child's high school graduation. During stage two, a year later, I again interviewed mothers and fathers individually. All interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. This dissertation is an account of class, gender, generation and transformation. I argue that it is not only middle class children whose class position is preserved through the attainment of higher education, but parents as well. In addition, I contend that when parents and children conflict as to the selection of a college, deferring to children frequently carries economic implications for parents, and that emerging patterns suggest a redefining of norms governing appropriate middle class parent and child behaviors. Further I submit that as they launch children to adulthood, mothers and fathers undergo the transformation from primary to secondary parenthood through an observable sequence of stages through which they pass. Finally, I show that despite cultural norms which assume mothers will be distressed as children leave home, it is fathers who are more likely to experience this passage negatively.

Subject Area

Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Souza, Elizabeth Hope, "The launch pad: Middle class families and the transition to college" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3118333.