When my children were applying to college three and six years ago, I sputtered and railed against the College Board, which seemed to talk to my children like a scolding grandparent.
Don't know where you're applying at test time? No free score reports for you. Want scores forwarded promptly? Costs extra. Think you're ready for the test? Better buy one more manual from us. This was Little Red Riding Hood's grandma with big teeth.
I'm over that now. The College Board has softened some policies and offered free guidance, but more to the point, my kids are settled in college. The college application process would be out of my life entirely, except that I was asked to help write a book on the subject. Because of that project, I'm still curious.
What bugs parents now?
I report to you from the front lines of a town that produces many good applicants. Davis, California, is an educated, affluent community, a college town, where 65 percent of our high school graduates go on to four-year institutions.
Interviews of parents for my book, plus a dozen conversations with parents of this year's seniors, yielded some frustrations I anticipated and one real surprise.
Dealing With Organizations
Like parents all over the country, my interviewees are nervous about the new essay required by the College Board.
"What's a good score now?" is a typical question. "And how much do colleges count it?" Parents would like a real answer, something more specific than "we will consider each applicant’s best composite score, and - where available - their writing score" (Dartmouth College Web site).
The Common Application (which is not produced by the ubiquitous College Board) provokes parental anxiety, too. You'd think that an application that allows students to fill out the questions only once and write only one essay would inspire nothing but joy and gratitude. Indeed, some of the remarks I heard from parents sounded like testimonials ("wonderful" "easy to use"), but one problem surfaced repeatedly.
It might be called "miss-labeling" The common application is "common" because 300 colleges use it, but it is not common in the sense parents expect. It is not used identically by all colleges. For example, some institutions require application fees to be mailed in separately; sometimes you can pay online. This can be confusing, but it's a relatively minor detail.
More serious is the significant amount of additional material required by many institutions. They request extra essays, some short, some long. Some can be submitted via computer, some not. Students often fashion careful answers and then discover they won't fit in the space provided.
The most serious discomfort parents feel about the Common Application comes when they note discrepancies between the college's "own" application and the Common Ap. This is not the sort of thing that agitates teenagers, but it puts parents into a conundrum. Is it better to fill out the college's own application? Might that indicate greater interest? (Tuned-in parents have heard that "demonstrated interest" may count.)
Pushing their children to do the work of a second application, on nothing more than the hunch that it might count more, is not the sort of task that endears parents to children, or the reverse.
Still, the problem wouldn't have loomed large back in the days when most students applied to only a few places. Now, thanks to a growing population of college applicants, U.S. News rankings, and other factors, competition for "name" schools has become intense, leading to the grim advice, "Since you may not get in, apply widely."
When a student is filling out five applications to "reach" colleges, five to "good possibilities" and at least two to "safeties", extra essays, disparate payment systems, and space-limited Web sites can provoke the sort of blow up that parents dread during the last year at home with their child.
And the tension that fills homes during the month of April is palpable as students try to make up their minds which college to attend and parents (let's admit it) try to influence them. It doesn't help that colleges have greatly increased the size of their waiting lists, in many cases without informing applicants. How many parents and students get their hopes up when they shouldn't?
Seeking a "Good Fit"
I see no way for test makers, common application designers and colleges themselves to end college frenzy, but I believe they could make it easier to help parents and students find the elusive "good fit."
As one parent put it, "It's hard to discover what I need to know. Like when I'm buying a car, I don't know much about it so I say, 'we want low mileage', but is that really the most important thing? How do I get that next tier of information? For example, my son and I know the college has a psychology department, but is it average, good, or exceptional? How do we find out?"
Colleges should never stop recommending the visit, even though it forces some families to stretch. Says one counselor I interviewed, "If you want to discover the best fit for your kid, it's hard without hitting the road and looking. The Internet has put people into a passive viewing situation. They think they know the college, and they don't. Kids need to visit and look. They need to say, 'this feels right to me.'"
Colleges also need to be honest about what distinguishes them from others. The one thing I remember from the glossy brochures my children received was that they all looked alike. Of course, adding college visits to the already jam-packed junior and senior years can be an additional burden, not only financially, but it in terms of stress and time. As I spoke with parents, the cry I heard most often was for something colleges can't be expected to provide: empathy for the pressures parents and children face in their last years of high school.
"Everything happens at the same time," said one parent.
"What about the college application process drives me crazy?" asked another, rephrasing my question. "Dealing with my son."
The Big Surprise
But if parents complained about inconsistencies in the application process, pressure on and from their students, and the vagaries of applying for financial aid, all of which I expected, what surprised me?
Not a single parent said that he or she was angry at "the whole system", complex, demanding, and full of pressure as it is.
One interviewee provided an important clue.
"At the information session for parents at Davis High School, the big message from the counselors was 'you have to let your student do it', meaning that parents should stay out of the application process. I was sitting next to parents who had been through this with older kids. They sputtered. They rolled their eyes. They told me there was no way they could leave this to their kids to figure out. Too complicated. Too much at stake. Can students manage it all by themselves? No."
Parents today expect the process of applying to college to be difficult for their children and they expect to help.
That last part pleases them.
They're happy with a system that requires them to be involved because that's what they want in the first place. They want to be able to influence the child in what they view as the best direction. This may not be an ideal way for children to grow up and assume adult responsibility, but that's the situation we've got.
Interestingly, the enthusiasm parents have for being involved leads them to an insight they might not have reached in any other way.
"My heart goes out to those kids who are first-generation college," said one parent. "I don't know what happens to those kids."
As they madly participate in efforts to increase the chances that their own children get in, some application-savvy parents are aware of who gets left out.
Colleges, it's still up to you to find and help those students.
Marion Franck is a freelance writer and co-author with Sally P. Springer of Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know about Getting Into College (Jossey-Bass, 2005).
I am a baby-boom parent with children in college. We baby-boomers, now in our pre-dotage, have become infamous on college campuses -- again -- this time for noisily hovering over our children as they try to make their ways in the world (see Wikpedia on “helicopter parents”). From my own bleak experience -- both professional and personal -- I can say with confidence that our children become adults not because of our involvement in their lives, but in spite of it.
Penny Rue, the University of Virginia’s dean of students, calls us “benign dictators.” We, who reacted against the enforced age hierarchy of our own dictatorial parents, have become instead oppressors whose rule is based on the illusion that we and our children are peers, Rue says. And the illusion is so strong, that our children are fooled into not claiming the birthright that we claimed at their age: personal autonomy.
This embrace of dependence is not surprising given the attitudes of contemporary college students toward their parents. At the University of Maryland at College Park, James M. Osteen, the assistant vice president for student affairs, writes, “I find that students and their parents generally have a much closer relationship in recent years as compared to earlier decades. Students are very likely to list their parents as significant role models; whereas in the past students might name people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa.”
It is sweet and fine for your 5 year old to think of you as sainted and heroic, but for your 20 year old to have the same attitude should be worrying. Why don’t we hear self-help sages speaking of the problem of arrested development any more? Where are the Erik Eriksons of yesteryear?
Rue and Osteen see the positive side of parental involvement. Both judge today’s parental role as student advocates to be an invitation to college-parent partnerships that can benefit students. But they also recognize the dangers: Both Osteen and Rue note that with parents handling everything from roommate problems to purchasing airplane tickets, students cannot develop a sense of mastery and the confidence necessary to live on one’s own. Erikson might observe that such parental behavior deprives young people of their identities as autonomous and competent adults.
I learned my own necessary lesson about meddling in my children’s education probably too late, after the critical period of Eriksonian development -- when the second of my three children was in sixth grade. Before that, I would regularly become concerned and then incensed about some way or other schools were failing my children. So caught up in tilting at windmills, I did not devote a moment’s attention to the big picture -- to problems of other students, teachers, schools, or to my children’s educational needs beyond small and preoccupying slights.
This is how I learned my lesson: My child, a superior sort of girl, of course, seemed not to be doing any work, while at the same time was receiving good grades. At a teacher conference I complained/boasted that my daughter was not doing any work and getting good grades. I suppose I imagined that with the complaint, her brilliance would be more appreciated, and she would get the special attention that as an exceptional person she deserved. Sure enough, it got her more attention immediately. Her grades plummeted. She became discouraged. And until she enrolled in college and had only herself to please, she never again studied for a test or did a lick of homework. To this day, this is the story my children tell their friends to describe the sort of person their mother is. There is no living it down.
As a parent of two in college and one in graduate school, I get involved only in questions of spelling. They may beg me to advise about conditional clauses, but I stand firm. I do listen to complaints about roommates, but have learned that in this area as in most issues of personal relationships it is best to listen only.
If other parents would fail earlier in their micro-management careers, college educators would not have to grin and bear helpful advice from over-bearing parents who threaten to bury student affairs offices under ship-loads of constructive criticism. Student affairs professional regularly remark to novices, “You see all those students walking around with cell phones? They are not talking to friends. They are talking to their mothers.”
And what are these students telling their parents? What they want to hear: that the people who run colleges don’t know half as much as their parents do and that life on campus is hell. And then their parents get on their mobile phones and call administrators who, if they weren’t chained to their desks would run screaming from their shabby little offices each time a call from a parent were announced.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now -- as a parent and as a college administrator. These calls can generate a lot of negative emotion -- raising blood pressure of both parents and college administrators. The number of these calls increase exponentially every year. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2003, 16.6 million students were enrolled in college. I imagine that 16.6 million cell phones transmitting the troubled chatter of parents and children about what is going wrong in college must surely be capable of unbalancing the music of the spheres.
When I worked in a college president’s office, I often took calls from irate parents. I sometimes thought I felt the universe skipping a beat as they described the woes of their children in college: not being able to get into a popular (gut) class; wet, slippery floors in the bathroom; having to go to class in the snow/wind/rain; having an electrical box mounted outside their dorm room (which was sending out dangerous electrical waves); poor grades on tests studied for; having to study for tests over Thanksgiving break; having too short a Thanksgiving/Christmas/Summer break; administrators not doing something about hurt feelings caused by not being offered a place in a fraternity; not doing something about roommates having sex; not being allowed to cheat on exams; the president getting too tough on those who assault others, etc., etc. Some parents would call already angry. Some would become angry when they realized that no matter how much they wanted it, changing the university was going to take longer than 24 hours. They became angrier and angrier as they were transferred from one office to another. The political science department would get calls from parents complaining about fully enrolled courses out of which their children were closed out. The department would pass the calls on to the provost’s office, which would pass it along to the president’s office. What did I do? I told these parents to write to their legislators about getting more funding for public universities. I pitied the next person they would talk to after getting off the phone with me.
Sometimes I think that my generation doesn’t much care about what we are trying to control. It is the existential act of exerting control that is important to us. Not going gently into that good night makes us forget ultimate truths. We may have short memories, but those we plague with our demands do not. Student affairs officers shake their heads and remember that baby boomers in their own youths had demonstrated for increased personal freedom, and had gotten rid of the college practice of in loco parentis. Now for their children, irony of ironies, they are demanding that it be put back.
In our 45-60 years we have been promiscuous and irrational in many of the issues we have raised our voices about. We got the U.S. out of Vietnam and, 30 years later, into Iraq. We started the sexual revolution, and now we vote for anti-birth control and anti-abortion politicians. We rejected our elders’ assertion of control over our lives and we put chokeholds on the lives of our children.
The time has come to think about the consequences of indiscriminately throwing our considerable middle-aged weight around. It seems to me we have to face some facts. First of all, we need to let our children grow up. Second, we need to realize that we can’t stop the world from turning, that the generation we bred will replace us, and that they need to be prepared to do so. Most of all, we need to grow up, grow old, shut up, and step aside.
Margaret Gutman Klosko
Margaret Gutman Klosko is a writer based in Virginia.
At a recent meeting our provost told a story about receiving a midmorning call from a mother asking if her son was in class.
“I always give my son a wakeup call,” the mother explained, “but he’s not answering.” Our provost — a dean at the time of this experience — told this concerned mother she cannot inform parents if their adult students are in class.
“Student?” the mother exclaimed. “No, he’s teaching the class.”
My colleagues and I groaned. This story could be part of “helicopter parent” legend.
At New Student Orientation, I stress that parents must help their first-year students take responsibility for themselves, advice I hoped to heed when my son, Dylan, started college in August. I realize the challenge, since we’ve raised a play-date generation of children who expect mom and dad to keep coming through. Helicopter parents created this problem, but our “satellite kids” — grown up tethered to us by cell phones and e-mail, those not-so-imaginary apron strings — seem compelled to continue the pattern.
His second week away, Dylan calls me between classes. “What’s another word for ‘great’?”
I almost say, Are you serious?
Instead I ask, “What’s the sentence?”
A recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) reported 86 percent of first-year college students were in frequent contact with their mothers via phone or email, while 71 percent communicated frequently with their fathers. Though there may be much contact, just 13 percent of first years and 8 percent of seniors reported that parents frequently intervened on their behalf — perhaps the difference between parents as “Boeing-Fixed Wings” offering help when needed or “Black Hawks” swooping in to rescue.
Like many of his contemporaries, Dylan has rarely struggled or pined for something. For half his life he’s had two households; for half his life I’ve lived apart from my son. Of course I pick up every time he calls.
“I’m making chicken at Ashley’s apartment,” he says one afternoon. “I talked to Dad this morning. He said I should wash the chicken first. Do I use soap?”
I choke back a laugh. “You probably never want to use soap on food.”
“Just wanted to know for sure,” he says.
An hour later he calls back. “This might be a really dumb question,” he says. “When you put spoons and forks in a dishwasher, do they go up or down?”
“I don’t think it really matters,” I say. “The gals have you doing dishes, huh?”
He lets go his bashful laugh, one he’s had since he was about two — eyes away, chin down.
Dylan finds a ride home the next two weekends. He tells me he’s getting too much homework and not enough sleep. He complains about having to do a ropes course on Sunday morning with his orientation class. I remind him that he’ll have a better transition if he stays at school on the weekends and gets to know his dorm mates. He says his dad will drive him back to school at 7 am the next morning.
“You’re not seriously getting up that early to drive back?” It comes out more accusatory than I intend.
“Yeah, why?” He’s sitting in the recliner, sweatshirt hood pulled over his head.
“Are you planning on coming home every weekend?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“You’re paying for a dorm and meals you’re not using.”
“What does it matter?” he says, annoyed.
“I don’t want to fight about this,” I say.
“You say you don’t want to fight about something but you have a fight in your voice.” He looks at the ceiling.
I say, “You’re right.”
When he leaves, I hold him in a hug that goes on longer than usual. “I just want everything to go well for you,” I say.
He nods. “See you in a few weeks.”
That week I send him a letter:
I want you to understand where I’m coming from when we talk about college. I’ve spent the past 12 years researching and writing about the first year experience. You probably didn’t realize that I’m often invited (and paid) to visit universities and conferences to give workshops on how to help students transition. So when you and I talk, all of my research wells up and wants to scream out at you — NO, do this instead. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m dealing with you, as an individual, and there’s no ONE college experience. Every student has to make his own path.
Dylan calls me to rant about reading Pride and Prejudice for a history class. “It’s not even English, why the hell do I have to read this?” He uses some more choice words about the novel.
My first reaction is to laugh. My boy is swearing in front of me for maybe the first time, and it’s all because of Jane Austen.
I say, “You knew you had to read this novel since the beginning of the semester, right?”
“Yeah, but now I have to read half the book by Friday.”
“What happens if you don’t read it?”
Before we hang up, he says, “What’s the point of any of my classes?”
It’s his first breakdown of the semester. A small part of the college teacher in me panics. A huge part of the mother in me does the same. I see what happens to students — particularly young men — whose drinking or gaming or disinterest or lack of connections helps them fail out of college. If I knew less, I'd feel better right now.
Later that night I get an e-mail from Dylan:
just so you know i dont plan on opening up Pride and Prejudice ever again. in fact i already put it back in the drawer. im going to use this as an “opportunity” to display the wonders of the internet to a teacher who hates technology.
Days later he calls to tell me his history professor said to him in class, “It doesn’t look like you’ve opened your book.”
As a former English major, it pains me that my son is reading online chapter summaries. I say, “Guess you’ll have to run it over with your bike.” It comes out of nowhere, in my pitiful attempt to get my boy to laugh.
And laugh he does. In fact, his whole attitude has changed. He says his psychology professor spent time with him during office hours and explained that all of Dylan’s current courses would fulfill university requirements, no matter what major he chooses. “So if I want to switch from nursing to criminal justice, I can do that.”
It’s exactly what I told him months ago. “That’s good to hear,” I say.
“And Dr. D____ says I can take his psych stats class in the spring instead of math stats.”
“Good to know. Remember, though, that you'll need to be ‘nursing’ on paper to get your scholarships for these first two semesters.”
Did Dr. D____ know that? I think not.
Dylan calls me on a Friday morning. I instinctively look at his class schedule next to my computer screen.
“I couldn’t go to biology today. I hurt my legs.”
“Oh no,” I say. Homecoming week means parties every night.
He starts his story, “It’s a little funny and a little sad.”
He tells me about a house party, that the shot glass was bigger than he thought.
“You weren’t doing shots of hard alcohol were you?” I accuse.
“No, Mom, it was just beer.”
Somehow that’s better?! Maybe in a drinking game it is.
Walking back to a friend’s house, he jumped off a curb into a puddle. “It wasn’t as deep as I expected.”
“I can’t bend one of my legs and my other leg hurts around my calf.”
“So what’s the funny part?” I say in my most assertive voice.
“I’m going to the clinic.”
Next I give him a mini lesson on HMOs.
“I’m going to the clinic Ashley goes to,” he explains.
“Are you prepared to spend thousands of dollars on this clinic visit if it’s not covered by our health insurance?” It’s a slight exaggeration.
I call him back with instructions about where to find the closest Urgent Care. Two hours later he calls from the car. “I see 420 Sarnia Street, but it’s just an old house. That can’t be it?”
“Stop and ask someone. There’s probably only one Urgent Care on Sarnia Street.”
“Wait — it’s West Sarnia, we were on East.”
I had my share of drinking mishaps as an undergraduate: a bruised nose from walking into a glass door, a few skinned knees. No fractured tibia and compressed cartilage from a drunken romp in a mud puddle. Or two trips home for an MRI and x-ray and a consult with an orthopedic surgeon who says to expect a three-month recovery. But my son knows none of this yet.
The Urgent Care doctor sends Dylan back to his dorm in a leg brace and tells him to rest and ice 3-4 times a day. On Sunday he calls to say his knee has ballooned to double its size, and he can’t climb into his lofted bed. I’m ready to speed there and bring him home to OUR Urgent Care. I call my ex-husband, and he reminds me that our darling limped 10 blocks to a homecoming football game on Saturday but didn’t walk across campus to get ice.
He says, “Dylan has got to learn to take care of himself.” Until recently our son wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without consulting his dad.
I call Dylan to see if he found ice cubes. “Did you try making them in your dorm fridge?”
“It takes at least 24 hours to make ice in there.”
I say sternly: “If you’d made some on Friday, you’d have them by now.” My conversation with his dad has made me think I’m one of those awful helicopter mothers raising a co-dependent imp who will never live on his own.
I deliver a cane to my ex’s house so Dylan's classmate can take it back to school. Dylan’s dad has a care package the size of Minnesota, including ice packs and crutches. I add my cane and homemade cookies to his stash without saying anything.
What’s the difference between parents like us and those who become Black Hawks? I visit an online parent's handbook at my son’s school, and I’m drawn to the quiz “Are you a helicopter parent?” I answer questions on “planning and scheduling activities” to “doing college applications” and “going to appointments with your child.” I recall that when I offered Dylan assistance with scholarships, he responded like the pragmatist he is: “Tell me what to do, and I'll do it” — words that would never have passed my lips at 17, even if money was involved. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to take my parents' advice any more than they considered that my success (or that of my seven siblings) was a reflection of their worth as parents. My quiz results: “Your level of involvement seems to indicate a good balance between your child's responsibilities and decisions, and your advice and guidance.” Well that’s a relief.
Dylan e-mails me on a Monday morning about his tuition balance.
I shoot back: “Aren’t you in Biology?”
He tells me that his professor was handing out an op-scan sheet in class, so Dylan hobbled over to ask if there was a quiz and remind the professor he had permission to miss class for an MRI.
The professor said, “The test schedule is on the syllabus.”
Dylan writes me,
it was never mentioned in lecture and i checked D2L every day since the last quiz caught me off guard. I think that C might be a little harder than i thought...
How is it possible that my son, earner of As, product of teacher parents, did not know to pay attention to the syllabus? I blame myself. I send him an e-mail suggesting that he take all of his course syllabuses and write every quiz, paper, and test date on his wall calendar.
“Good idea,” he writes back.
A true helicopter parent would have called up Dr. Anatomy and given him a piece of her mind about springing a test on a kid with a fractured tibia. It crosses my mind to e-mail Dr. A. and suggest he let Dylan retake the test.
“He’s a great student,” I might write, “but he’s having problems with his leg.” A slight understatement.
By Friday Dylan e-mails me that he earned 56 percent on his “surprise” biology test.
I send him information about withdrawing from a course. He’s got 13 days to decide.
“You know I hate to give up. Period,” he writes me.
He calls me while I’m reading his e-mail. “Of course,” I say, “but schools have a safety net for just this situation. You don’t need this lab if you’re not a nursing major. It makes sense to cut your losses.”
“Maybe,” he says. “I’ll call you later.”
He catches me on Friday afternoon. “It’s not like you put a lot of time into biology,” I say. “You skipped at least one lecture a week and didn’t stay for the entire lab.”
“I went to every lab,” Dylan says.
“You know what I mean.”
“Something like that,” he says. I can hear how troubled he is. I won’t tell him that a 4-credit “C” could close some doors on scholarships or certain majors. I’m trying to be sensitive about him failing his first college test, but all I can think is You little dumb-shit.
“You should talk to your biology professor.”
He says, “I think you can withdraw from a class online. You don’t have to talk to the professor. At least I hope not.”
He’s embarrassed, doesn’t want to explain how he could earn a 96 percent on his first test, 76 percent on the next, and then 56 percent. I’m sure he sees the pattern.
“Well,” I say, “you should at least figure out how to withdraw from a class.”
I refuse to do it for him.
Saturday morning I wake up thinking about my boy, and by 7 am I’ve sent Dylan a link on how to drop/add/withdraw, as well as a GPA calculator and information about meeting with his academic adviser. He calls me at 11:00 a.m. He’s just gotten up. “I talked to this girl Amy last night. She was a nursing major, and she switched to English.”
I interrupt “ — English major, so she’s really smart and probably really funny?”
“Yeah.” Dylan laughs.
“She was in chemistry when she changed her major, and she withdrew from the course because she didn’t need that lab. So I’ll withdraw from biology.”
“And Amy’s boyfriend, Kevin, helped me figure out what I’d need in every class to get a 3.5 GPA— ”
“I’m not finished,” he says. “And it looks like I have to get an A in English and psych and my two one-credit classes, but I can get a B in Western Civ and I can keep my scholarship.”
“Great,” I say. “Did you see my e-mail?”
“I sent you a GPA calculator, but if you’ve got Kevin you don’t really need it,” I tease.
He laughs. “Kevin and Amy have been here for six years so they should know everything.”
It occurs to me that my nearly 20 years of experience in higher education, not to mention my decade of expertise in the first year experience, have just been superseded by a super senior. But my satellite kid will likely call me no matter what, one side of my apron loosening while he ties himself to me with the other.
Patti K. See
Patti K. See is senior student services coordinator in the Academic Skills Center and a senior lecturer in women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She is the author (with Bruce Taylor) of Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College (Prentice Hall) (3rd edition forthcoming in 2011) and a poetry collection, Love's Bluff (Plain View Press).