Interviews with undergraduates during COVID-19 lockdowns illuminate how social class shapes the most intimate dimensions of family life, including how we understand what we deserve from and owe to our parents.
“Once quarantine started in March, one of my first thoughts was, ‘Shit, I’m not going to see my parents for a long time,’” Lexie told me that November over Zoom. A college junior from a low-income family, Lexie was just finishing her second semester of remote instruction at an elite university in the northeastern United States.
Although many of her classmates had returned to their parents’ homes when students were ordered to vacate the dorms the previous March, Lexie had not. The risk of bringing COVID-19 to her parents was too great, she told me, explaining,
My parents are 75 and 63. They both have every single health condition you could think of: diabetes, asthma . . . they’re both really overweight . . . which means that for COVID, if they get it, they will die.
Lexie’s mom had begged her to come home. “I don’t know what [my mom was thinking], because my mom knows that I’m a very stubborn person,” Lexie told me. “When I make a decision about something, especially when it regards her safety, I’m not going to budge on that.”
Crowdsourcing information from friends, Lexie found an apartment to sublet from a classmate who had returned home. Although Lexie felt fortunate to have found a place to stay, she struggled with the isolation of living alone in lockdown. “Everyone I knew went back home and lived with their parents,” Lexie said, describing the end of the spring 2020 semester. She told me, “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It was the worst time in my life.”
About a month later, I interviewed Lexie’s classmate, Bella. The daughter of two Ivy-educated professionals, Bella said she occupied two empty bedrooms in her parents’ spacious suburban home – one for sleep, the other for schoolwork. “My parents were willing to do whatever would make the spring more fun for me and for them,” Bella explained, recounting that they ordered a wine subscription and meal prep kits. Bella’s parents also ensured that she was set up with the technology she needed for remote classes: “they bought me a monitor and all these other accessories to help make studying easier,” Bella said.
Although Bella was already living in an off-campus apartment when the dorms closed that March, she explained that it was more appealing to move home because she knew her parents could take care of her there. “Because it was such a scary virus, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll just come home and let you guys take care of me,’” Bella explained, adding, “It didn’t hurt that [my parents] were going to pay for all of my food and stuff for that time.”
At face value, Lexie’s and Bella’s pandemic housing trajectories may be surprising. Lexie’s mother wanted her to return home, and she could have saved money by doing so. Bella was already living in an off-campus apartment, and she could have stayed put. So what explains their housing decisions?
My research demonstrates that understanding why Bella moved home—and why Lexie did not—requires understanding their underlying relationships with their parents.
Privileged dependence, precarious autonomy
Lexie and Bella were two of the 48 undergraduates I interviewed to understand how students from different social class backgrounds navigated COVID-19 campus closings. These students all attended the same elite residential university, but half were from working-class families and the other half were from upper-middle-class families. As their disparate experiences suggest, I observed striking class divides.
When I began this study in March 2020, I expected to see inequalities in the material resources parents would be able to provide—and I certainly did. Yet the class divides I observed went beyond immediate resource constraints. As I wrote in the Journal of Marriage and Family, I found that students’ housing decisions also reflected dramatically different understandings of their relationships with their parents.
My interviews revealed class divides in students’ understandings of (a) their parents’ authority, (b) their own entitlement to parents’ resources, and (c) their obligations to their families. Together, these understandings informed how students made decisions about where to live and how to interact with their families during remote instruction. Upper-middle-class students became more dependent on their parents—what I term privileged dependence—while working-class students took on more adult responsibility than ever—precarious autonomy.
Class divides in students’ understandings of intergenerational authority came through most clearly in their initial decisions about where to live when the dorms closed in March 2020. Upper-middle-class parents tended to be highly involved in students’ housing decisions and travel arrangements. Their children typically felt they had to live where their parents wanted them to. This reflected both students’ respect for their parents’ expertise about how to stay safe and students’ feeling that the people who pay the bills call the shots.
Working-class students, by contrast, typically made decisions more independently. These students often felt they knew more than their parents. Further, working-class parents lacked financial leverage: students like Lexie were typically paying all or most of their own college expenses (here, it’s important to consider how institutional context shaped the dynamics I observed: at the highly-resourced university in my study, working-class students benefitted from unusually generous financial aid packages – this gave them financial leverage their working-class peers at other colleges wouldn’t have had).
Second, students’ narratives revealed class divides in the extent to which they felt entitled to parents’ resources. Upper middle-class students like Bella generally viewed parents’ homes as their homes and parents’ money as their money. They typically described child-centered relationships in which both parents and students prioritized the student’s comfort, health, and academic progress. Bella’s decision to return home illustrates this dynamic well—she wanted to be at home so that her parents could take care of her.
In contrast, working-class students like Lexie actively considered parents’ needs, vulnerabilities, and constraints when making decisions about where to live and how to interact with their families. They typically felt far less entitled to parents’ resources—which were, of course, far more limited. Many working-class students (including many who moved home) expressed fears of being a health risk, a financial burden, or an inconvenience to their families.
Finally, there were class divides in students’ understandings of their obligations to their families. Whereas privileged students like Bella generally took it for granted that their parents would run the household while they focused on school, working-class students who went home typically had more responsibilities. These included running errands, driving parents to work, caring for elderly family members, and helping manage young siblings’ remote schooling. Some working-class students purposefully avoided returning home because they anticipated such responsibilities would interfere with schoolwork. Others who did return home often put academics to the side to tend to family members’ needs.
The uncertain future
My findings suggest implications for inequality, both during the immediate context of the pandemic and beyond. There were clear short-term benefits to privileged students’ greater dependence on parents during remote instruction. Privileged parents’ socioeconomic resources and the shared assumption that their young adult children would continue to rely on these resources protected upper-middle-class students like Bella from a variety of financial and academic disruptions. These protections—which were not available to less advantaged peers like Lexie—may yield longer-term payoffs, thus amplifying inequalities between students.
Comparing the experiences of Lexie, Bella, and their peers also offers a window into underlying differences in these young adults’ relationships with their parents. Students’ options for dealing with the campus closings were clearly constrained by their own and their parents’ immediate circumstances at the onset of the pandemic. But the class divides I observed extended beyond immediate resource constraints. The students I interviewed made decisions that reflected class-specific understandings of intergenerational authority, their entitlement to their parents’ resources, and their obligations to their families. My findings underscore the need to consider students’ relationships with their parents in understanding their educational decisions, experiences, and outcomes, both during the pandemic and beyond.
Elena G. van Stee is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2021-2023 Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Predoctoral Fellow. Elena’s research examines culture and inequality, focusing on social class, families, higher education, and the transition to adulthood. Her dissertation explores how social class intersects with race/ethnicity and immigration to shape young adults’ relationships with parents after college. You can read more about Elena’s research on her website and follow her on Twitter at @elenavanstee.