The Influence of a Mother on a Daughter’s College Decision

In 2010, Utah Women and Education Project researchers conducted in-depth research to discover why more young women around the state are not attending and graduating from college. The full set of results was published in a series of 12 research snapshots, which you can find on the Utah Women and Leadership website. In this blog, we look at the influence mothers have on young women attending college.

In our research, we discovered that mothers in Utah influence their daughters’ college choices and behaviors significantly when it comes to decisions about whether to attend college and persist until graduation.

Moms want daughters to attend college

A majority of the participants’ mothers wanted their daughters to attend college. Some mothers wanted their daughters to become independent career women while others believed that a college degree should be used as a backup plan in case their husbands were unable to care for them. Regardless of the mothers’ intentions, simply wanting a daughter to attend college was not enough to motivate many young women to pursue a degree. Mothers who provided encouragement by actively engaging with daughters in a variety of activities significantly increased the daughters’ chances of committing to and preparing for the higher education experience.

These activities included:

  • Acting as an educational role model. This was one of the most important things that mothers did to increase the chances of having their daughters commit to attend and graduate from college as well as prepare for college attendance.
  • Role models discussed college, attended themselves, placed high value on education, assisted their daughters in applying for financial assistance/college applications and visited campuses with them.
  • Helping with homework. This was the most cited activity that mothers did to help their daughters develop a love of learning. Daughters who had assistance with their schoolwork were also significantly more likely to commit to attending college and preparing for college attendance.
  • Reading, praising good work, and encouraging good grades. This increased the likelihood of having daughters be prepared for college.
  • Attending school activities (e.g., field trips), community and cultural events (e.g., museums and art galleries), and creating other learning events (e.g., family vacations). Mothers who did these activities with their daughters made it more likely that daughters would prepare for college.

Mom’s educational level is a key influencer

A mother’s education level has a profound influence on the educational choices of her daughter(s). According to our data, the higher the educational attainment level of the mother, the more likely her daughter will:

  • Actively prepare for college attendance.*
  • Talk to her mother about college and be encouraged to attend.
  • Develop a love of learning.
  • Receive help with homework.
  • Attend cultural, school, family, and community events.
  • Have a mother who attended college later in life as a nontraditional student.

*Activities that prepared students for college attendance included the following: saving money, discussing financial aid, AP and concurrent enrollment courses, visiting a campus, requesting information from a college, applying to a college, being accepted to a college, and applying for and receiving scholarships or grants.

What participants had to say

“My mom is the example in our family of completing college. She loved college. She was on the track team and graduated before she married my dad. I always wanted to be like my mom and play sports and go to college. Luckily she helped me to do that. She taught me how to read, and she helped me with and made sure that I always did my homework and turned it in. She encouraged me to get good grades and helped me in whatever way she could” [college graduate].

“When my mom went back to school and earned her bachelor’s degree, it just influenced and empowered me even more, and I knew that I could go back and accomplish that too” [college graduate].

The text of this blog was excerpted from a January 2011 research snapshot authored by Dr. Susan R. Madsen titled, “The Influence of a Mother on a Daughter’s College Decision.” (Please see the entire brief for more information on research context.)

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