Involved Parents, Satisfied Students

Data from engagement survey find students with "helicopter parents" to be more content with their college experience than others -- but with lower grades.
November 5, 2007

Oh, those helicopter parents. Their hovering, micromanaging ways only hurt their children’s enjoyment of college … right? Not according to the 2007 National Survey of Student Engagement, which is out today.

Students who frequently (defined in the survey as "often" or "very often") contact their parents -- and whose parents frequently contact college officials on their behalf -- are more satisfied with their college experience, and report higher levels of engagement and academic fulfillment than do their counterparts, according to the report.

But too much contact with family and friends from high school can inhibit student learning and development, the survey notes. Students with the hyper-involved parents had significantly lower grades than others. That might be because parents who call often are asking about their child's academic difficulties -- though the survey doesn't address why the parents are involved.

“Experiences That Matter: Enhancing Student Learning and Success” is based on information from roughly 313,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 610 four-year colleges in the United State and Canada. As part of an experimental section that addressed students' support systems, the survey received responses from 4,500 first-year and 4,600 seniors at 24 institutions.

Of that sample, 13 percent of first-year students and eight percent of seniors report that their parents "frequently" intervene with college officials to solve problems for them, and another quarter of first-year students and 21 percent of seniors said their parents intervened "sometimes." About three in four students frequently follow the advice of a parent, and fewer are influenced by siblings and friends.

Seven in 10 students report communicating "very often" with at least one parent during the academic year. Electronic media is the most common way of staying in touch, as seen in the table below. When students make a cell phone call or send an e-mail to a close contact, it's most likely to the mother -- findings that support previous research on student-parent communication.

Proportions of Students Who Had Frequent ('Often' or 'Very Often') Contact with Social Support Network

  First-year   Senior  
  In-Person Contact Electronic Contact In-Person Contact Electronic Contact
Mother 62% 86% 65% 86%
Father 54% 71% 57% 73%
Guardian 55% 71% 53% 67%
Siblings 50% 62% 52% 67%
High School Friends Attending Same College 54% 53% 40% 43%
High School Friends Attending Different College 39% 71% 32% 54%

Students are likely to talk to mothers about personal issues, academic performance and family, the survey found, while they talk to fathers mostly about academic performance.

"We have a social phenomenon on our hands that anyone who studies college student behavior would note," said George Kuh, NSSE’s director and a professor of higher education at Indiana University at Bloomington. "Students are much more closely connected to the family support system now, whether or not their parents intervene."

Kuh said he's surprised by the high number of students who say they frequently contact their parents and by those who report that their parents at least occasionally make calls on their behalf. It turns out that a parent's educational level isn't an accurate predictor of how often he or she will get involved. Kuh said he figured that parents who are more familiar with the college setting would be more likely to intervene.

Proportion of Students Who Frequently Followed the Advice of Family Members and Friends

  First-Year Senior
Mother 77% 73%
Father 71% 69%
Guardian 71% 70%
Siblings 45% 44%
H.S. Friends Attending Same College 35% 27%
H.S. Friends Attention Different College 39% 27%

Touting the "High Impact" Activity

The survey also found that students receive both academic and personal benefits from taking part in what it calls "high impact" activities that require close interaction with their peers, faculty and other professionals. These include study abroad, internships or field placement, capstone projects, first-year seminars, learning communities and undergraduate research with faculty.

Nearly half of the 18,000 faculty members who completed the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, also released through Indiana University, last spring said it is "important" or "very important" for undergraduates to take part in a learning community. More than 50 percent said working on a research project with a professor is an important exercise, and more than 8 in 10 faculty said students should have a culminating senior experience.

Still, fewer than half of the seniors surveyed said they had taken part in such an experience, and the numbers are especially small at public institutions, the survey found. More than half of seniors report doing a practicum or clinical assignment, or having a field experience.

Students who took part in a study abroad program report making greater gains in intellectual and personal development upon returning to campus than do those who stay on the home campus over that time period. The survey found that the length of time one spends abroad isn't as important statistically as whether a student has any such an experience -- though Kuh added that students who live with a foreign family report more gains than others who live among English speakers. Those most likely to leave: students at private colleges majoring in the arts and social sciences. First-generation and transfer students are the least likely participants.

Kuh said the survey data underscore how much students value faculty input on their academic and extracurricular choices. "The more faculty at an institution say doing an activity is important, the more likely students are to find it important and then take part in it," he said.

The survey also found that:

  • Students who meet with their adviser at least twice a year are more engaged and gain more from college than those who don’t. A majority of students said their advisers were either “good or excellent.”
  • Part-time, white female students are less likely to meet with their adviser than full-time, male students of color. Ten percent of students overall never once met their adviser.
  • The Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement found that first-year males report higher SAT and ACT scores, but spend less time than females preparing for classes and more time “relaxing and socializing.” Women were more academically engaged and had better grades in high school, however.
  • Students starting college expected to spend 50 percent more time preparing for class than relaxing and socializing. Full-time students report spending 13 to 14 hours studying a week, a number that has remained constant since the report began. (Faculty said that’s about half of what is needed to do well in their classes.)
  • Forty-six percent of students attend college within 100 miles of home.


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