Keeping Parents in the Loop

March 14, 2006

When Kurt Keppler attended college more than 25 years ago, parents rarely phoned administrators or monitored their child’s schedule, he said. “If I found out that my mom or dad had called the dean of students, I would have had some strong words for them,” said Keppler, who is vice president for student affairs at Valdosta State University and president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

These days, parent involvement is no longer considered taboo. Some keep tabs on their student’s affairs through college Web pages or newsletters. The most extreme cases are referred to as “helicopter parents:" Those who hover over their child-students, unwilling to grant them autonomy.

“Parents are looking for more transparency on college campuses,” said Craig Ullom, associate vice president of campus life at the University of Central Florida. His comments, before an audience of more than 50 people Monday at the student personnel association’s annual conference, elicited a sea of nodding heads.

According to two recent surveys, colleges are responding to increased parental interest and involvement by implementing a range of parent services programs, many of which invite parents to campus and urge them to serve on committees.

A University of Minnesota survey of 186 colleges across the country that were identified as having programs for parents showed that 10 percent of respondents had offered a parent services program since the 1970s, but that most have added theirs in the last 15 years. Nine colleges developed such programs in the first quarter of 2005, according to the “National Survey of College and University Parent Programs,” conducted by Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota.

These programs include days-long parent orientations, parents-only listservs managed by universities, and even services such as Web cameras that allow parents to see live pictures of their children’s campuses.

Sixty percent of colleges surveyed have a parent council, which communicates directly with campus officials, as compared with about 35 percent in 2003, the survey shows. Panelists at the NASPA conference noted that parent councils and boards can be effective fund raising tools, too.

Some parent services programs are so new that no full-time staff members are assigned to them. The majority of program directors report to the student affairs department, the survey found. Among private institutions, the fund raising/advancement office is most likely to house the programs.

A similar survey, conducted by NASPA’s Parent and Family Relations Knowledge Community, showed that the colleges surveyed spend an average of about $16,500 on parent services programs per year.

Twenty-nine colleges responded to the survey, called “Promising Practices for Partnering with Parents.” Parent orientation, often held simultaneously with student orientation, is when most parent-college interaction occurs, both surveys found. There is also a proliferation of programs that help parents deal with the empty nest syndrome.

Neither study mentioned what percentage of all colleges and universities has parent services programs.

NASPA’s report included examples of colleges that have implemented programs. At Belmont University, parents recite a pledge with students during welcome week. At Western Washington University, parents of new students receive welcome calls before classes start.

“It makes them feel more interested, more engaged,” said Carolyn Stirling, co-founder of the NASPA family relations group and a recruiting and admissions counselor at the University of Southern California.
 
Ullom said the NASPA survey affirmed his belief that colleges are using multiple methods of reaching parents. He said he is more concerned about parents who are not getting involved, many of whom didn’t attend college.

“Our job is to support both the hyper-involved parents and those that are hands-off,” Ullom said.

NASPA’s full survey is scheduled to be available on its Web site by the end of next week.

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