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Parents: Help or Hindrance?

March 28, 2012

PHOENIX -- Parents are getting a bad rap.

So say researchers who studied the relationship between parental involvement and their children's development as college students over a four-year period -- and found that students whose parents were significantly involved in their lives did not have their progress hindered. The researchers presented their findings here this month at the annual convention of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Although nearly 88 percent of parents reported being either somewhat or very involved throughout their child's four years at college, the presenters said the popular term “helicopter parents” is a misnomer.

“That does not fit all the parents out there -- it does not even fit the majority of the parents,” said Sheri King, assistant director of student affairs at the University of Georgia’s Griffin campus. “Parents, institutions and students share a common goal. All of us have the same goal of seeing that student develop into an individual prepared to succeed in a global society.”

The survey went out in fall 2007 and again last spring to hundreds of students and their parents, at a small private college in the Northeast, mid-sized publics in the South and Northwest, a large private in the West, and a large public in the East. (The respondents are disproportionately white and from high socioeconomic backgrounds, so the presenters cautioned against generalizing their findings to all student-parent relationships.) Ultimately, the group analyzed the 2007 and 2011 surveys taken by 70 student-parent pairs.

The presenters sought to answer two questions with their study: Do students make progress in four areas key to personal development – life purpose, mature interpersonal relationships, academic autonomy and a healthy lifestyle – while they are in college? And, do different types of parent involvement influence students’ development in those key areas?

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“We believe that parent involvement, for the most part, supports student development,” King said. “Parents seek meaningful ways for involvement and they are willing to work, for the most part, within parameters when they are given to them.”

In some cases, the students whose parents were involved in their business came out ahead of their peers.

“In our sample, we see that closeness is not necessarily dependence,” said Alicia Peralta, graduate assistant for educational programs at NASPA, “and students in our sample who are close to their parents seemingly ostensibly show development that is consistent or on par with national norms.”

When it came to autonomy, students in the sample still came out ahead. In 2011, male and female students from the sample scored 3.71 and 3.68, respectively, on a Likert scale measuring autonomy development – significantly better than the 3.21 and 3.5 scored by their non-sample peers who took the survey (the study used the Student Developmental Task and Lifestyle Assessment).

In the life purpose category, students in the sample did more career planning as students across the board. Male students did particularly well, scoring 0.6 points higher than the non-sample, while female students scored 0.15 points higher. They did even better in cultural participation: female students scored more than a half-point higher than the general population (there were no scores for male students in this category).

Students in the sample also scored better in mature interpersonal relationships and healthy lifestyles, for the most part. Development in these areas grew or stayed the same among the students surveyed, although breaking it down into subcategories, one finds that female tolerance increases (putting them above the national norm) while male tolerance goes down (putting them below it).

When students sought their parents’ help on issues ranging from academics to finances, in most cases parents offered suggestions of what to do but still allowed students to make their own decisions.

About 15 percent of parents of parents whose students consulted them said they made decisions for students regarding bill payment, while 14 percent did so for participation in student organizations. About 13 percent made a decision for their student when it came to personal or campus safety.

“They’re involved,” King said, “but they’re not ‘doing’ for the students.”

Parents rarely intervened or solved problems for students by contacting the college, but when they did, it was most often for issues regarding financial aid and bill pay. About 24 percent of parents intervened for each reason.

But parents also took action on medical and safety issues. Nearly 4 percent said they intervened for mental health reasons, 2.5 percent did for campus safety, and 1.4 percent did so for physical health. Parents cited examples including a rat living in their student’s dorm, a suicidal roommate, inconsistent labeling of dining hall food containing nuts, and an academic adviser failing to respond appropriately to the student’s learning disability.

“We found a theme in our qualitative data that when parents felt that the institution was not showing appropriate care and concern, that was a time when they decided to intervene,” said Patricia A. Rissmeyer, vice president for student affairs at Emmanuel College in Boston.

Parents intervened for one of five reasons: to seek or provide information, to seek understanding, to provide assistance or advocacy, and to register an opinion. (That last one got a few snickers from the crowd, as did one parent’s example: “[I intervened] to make the point that not all parents believe co-ed dorm floors/rooms are open-minded options.")

Most parents found themselves communicating with students slightly less over time, 43 percent saying their involvement level decreased somewhat. Thirteen percent, though, said their involvement level decreased substantially. One-third of parents reported no change, and 8 percent said their involvement increased somewhat.

The topics discussed also varied slightly (conversations about academic progress and advising, and major/career decisions, were had more often in the beginning, while by the stress management, health and wellness and again, academic advising were most discussed).

Following with the national trend, parental involvement with institutions increased over time: they read increasingly more publications, visited the website more often, and became more likely to attend parent day or weekend or join the parent association or council. Also, their awareness of institutional offerings increased.

Although Richard Mullendore, a professor of college student affairs administration at the University of Georgia, suggested institutions have a tendency to “hide behind” the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to avoid involving parents, some audience members said they struggled to know when it’s permissible under FERPA to share information with hostile parents who may not know the whole story about what’s going on with their student.

But as FERPA doesn’t prohibit contact with the parents of students who are under 21, the protocol is really guided more by institutional policy, Mullendore said.

“If you feel the need to violate FERPA, my recommendation is to violate FERPA,” Mullendore said. “No one’s ever lost a dollar for violating FERPA.”

Rissmeyer, on the other hand, has had success in, after talking with a distressed parent, discussing the issue with the student, then encouraging him or her to bring the parent in or do a conference call to talk about how to move forward.

“Students aren’t always open to that,” Rissmeyer said, “but when they are, I think it’s really good for the student.”

“As a result of this whole process, we really believe that things like parent orientation, your institution website and all of your publications should be truly comprehensive,” Mullendore said. “Parents need to understand their impact on student development, and that we’re finding that parental development in students’ lives is not a bad thing.”

Orientation should include time for campus officials to talk to parents about how they can get involved but also what their boundaries are – and don’t put off dealing with the hot-button issues. Don’t wait for problems to arise before communicating with parents about how things like financial aid, bill pay, campus food and housing work, Mullendore said.

“The reality is they are involved,” Mullendore said, “and they aren’t going away, folks.”

 

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