PARENTS! I think we can all agree that we spend more and more of our time responding to parents. Some institutions find this a necessary evil and handle parents by taking a “hands off” approach. Others embrace parents and have created parent programs, parent relations offices, and even parent advisory boards.
Throughout the history of our profession, the role that parents play in the educational process has changed. In the early years, American Universities were modeled after English institutions such as Cambridge and Oxford and in loco parentis which translates as “in the place of the parent” was the standard mode of operation. The turbulent 60’s brought us the beginning of student independence and there was a shift away from in loco parentis. In the early ‘70’s the passing of FERPA added to the belief that students were adults and campuses should deal directly with the student. In the ‘90’s we saw the beginning of a shift in the continuum and with the emergence of the millennial generation.
We continue to see involved parents, along with students who are embracing their parents’ involvement.
On the whole, as administrators, we have a tendency to get very frustrated by this level of parental involvement. Most of us completed our graduate school preparation programs and studied in loco parentis. We were taught this was an outdated concept and to view students developmentally as adults. However, while we have been receiving these messages, what messages have the parents of today’s college students been hearing?
Let’s take a few minutes to examine what is going on in high schools in this country. In researching this topic we spent some time looking at high school web sites, sites geared toward parents and also sites for educators. The common message that we found was: “Be involved and Your Student will Be Academically Successful!” Parents hear this consistently throughout their students’ elementary, middle school, and high school careers. Additionally, we know there are a higher number of students than ever before who receive special education, and that the parents of these students are taught to advocate for their student’s needs. If you take time to review these various websites and you think about these messages; you have to wonder, in the three short months between high school graduation and the start of the freshmen year, can we really expect parents to just let go? Can we realistically ask them to suddenly see their “child”, as an ADULT? Can we tell these same parents who have been told over and over “BE INVOLVED, BE INVOLVED”, to suddenly not be?
In researching this topic and what information was out there for parents on the web, we typed “parental involvement in college” into a search engine and got hundreds of hits. Most elementary and high school websites have links just for parents. These sites often had links about applying to college, financial aid and other similar information. In addition to these types of websites, there are a myriad of books available. Go to Amazon.com and you will be surprised at how many titles you find. The college parent has become a target market.
With all of this in mind, it begs the question; are we giving the right message to parents on our own campus? Do you even know what your institutional philosophy is regarding parents? Is your department’s message or approach consistent with what your division or institution’s message or approach is? For instance, is your department’s philosophy one that supports dealing with students directly and feels parents should take more of a back seat? Do you discourage parents from calling your office to handle problems for their student? While you are doing this are the upper-level administrators standing up at Open House events and Orientation and telling parents – “My door is always open, call me anytime?”
It appears that involved parents are going to be around for a while. We have to ask ourselves how we are going to deal with these hovering parents. Are we going to continue to push them away or are we going to attempt to partner with them in an effort to increase student success?
Partnering with today’s parents can be a challenge at times, but here are some things we have done on our own campus and seen other campuses doing:
• Create a parent’s section on your departmental website including a FAQ section
• Host an opening day social for parents
• Adopt a parent friendly attitude in your office
• Have printed information to hand out during opening
• Develop a parent newsletter
These are just a few suggestions to get people started. There are many ways your department or institution can adopt a parent friendly attitude.
Crafting your parental message can be a difficult task. For us, it definitely helps that it comes from the top down. Start by assessing your campus and department and see what services or programs you currently offer to parents and what areas you need to be more parent friendly in. Make sure your staff is delivering the same message. If the President and Vice President are standing up at parent orientation saying to call us if you have any questions, then that goes for every department on campus. If the Director of your department is telling parents to call us if you have any concerns or questions, then you need to be receptive to getting those phone calls.
You also need to be sure you are spreading your message consistently. At Bridgewater, we start delivering our parental message to prospective students and their parents at Open House. Our message is “Help Them to Help Themselves”. Parents hear this message throughout Orientation, the room assignment process, and in every communication leading up to when their student arrives on campus to join our residential community.
So in answer to the question, Parents: Partners in the Education Process or Obstacles to Overcome? We think Parents can be successful partners and through education, we can work with them throughout their student’s college career to let go and let their student develop into a mature adult.
Submitted by Shelly Keniston, Assistant Director of Residence Life and Housing & Beth Moriarty, Director of Residence Life and Housing