Although the phrase in loco parentis probably isn’t often heard on campus today, the doctrine is indeed alive and well and has a strong influence on colleges and universities. The Latin phrase, meaning “in the place of a parent,” when used in a student affairs context describes the idea that the institution stands in place of a student’s parent or guardian. And it seems clear that parents and society at large expect institutions to maintain what can be construed as a parental level of control over students.
Parents of today’s college students view themselves as equal partners in the education of their children and maintain a strong influence in their lives. Commonly referred to as “helicopter parents” because of their hovering nature, many are involved in every aspect of their child’s college life, from course and housing selection to their child’s judicial record. This places institutions in what can be an awkward position of trying to balance the expectations of parents, the boundaries of various federal privacy laws, and the institution’s own philosophy of student development.
It is critical that institutions understand the dynamic nature of the concept of in loco parentis and develop practices and policies to address it.
The roots of in loco parentis lie deeper than the U.S. education system. During the time when colleges and universities were first established in the United States, British institutions, such as Oxford and Cambridge universities, were considered revolutionary for combining residential and learning environments. Residential dormitories implemented strict supervision by faculty to ensure general well-being of their students. U.S. institutions imitated that focus on academics and character development, thus establishing the foundations of in loco parentis.
The term officially entered student affairs lexicon during the 1960s when turbulent changes caused a shift in institutional policy. Students, often the catalyst for change, became engulfed in social movements for civil rights and liberties. Their progressive outlook occurred on both national and institutional levels, raising questions about the validity of in loco parentis. Institutional policies changed too, marked by a shift in the relationship between the institution and the student. Many institutions began appointing students to influential committees and governing boards. Additionally, this is the era when student government bodies gained prominence.
In loco parentis was further modified in 1972 when 18-year-olds obtained suffrage. The nascent empowerment of students resulted in even more autonomy, and, consequently, altered the college landscape. Vibrant student activism reached new levels during this period, epitomized by involvement in anti-war movements and the struggle for civil rights for minorities and women. Numerous clubs and campus organizations sprouted during this time that reflected the desire for independence in personal and public matters.
Many historical perspectives label these modifications during the 1960s and 1970s as the downfall of in loco parentis. While the concept has dramatically changed, this perception of demise is untrue. Today’s college students and their parents have explicit expectations of what role the institution should play. In loco parentis is not the trademark of a defunct era, it is an evolving notion. For many generations of college students, this has, in one way or another, been a part of their college experience.
LEGAL AND POLITICAL ARENA
There have been hundreds of court cases in the last several years relating to the doctrine of in loco parentis, many of which illustrate changing parental expectations of the college environment.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the case of Scott Krueger, who was a freshman at the Massachusetts of Technology (MIT) in Fall 1997. Krueger was found unconscious in a room at his fraternity after a hazing incident involving fraternity members forcing him to consume excessive amounts of alcohol. When he was discovered, his blood alcohol level was 0.40, and he later died. Shortly after his death, Krueger’s parents sued MIT, alleging that the institution’s inadequate alcohol and housing policies played a role in their son’s death. For several years after Krueger’s death, his parents fought MIT about where the responsibility for his death lay. In the fall of 2000, after extensive legal maneuvering and negative publicity, the president of MIT personally apologized to the Kruegers and the institution paid a $6 million settlement.
As a direct result of the Kruger case, MIT changed its housing and fraternity policies. Beginning the fall of 2002, MIT required all freshmen to live on campus for the first time in its 137-year history. The institution also provided more intense training for its residence hall staff and now pays live-in advisors to monitor fraternity and sorority housing.
Parents have not only sued for alcohol-related deaths, they have also held institutions responsible for student suicide. Ferrum College recently settled a case out of court in which it accepted partial responsibility for a student’s suicide.
Regardless of one’s opinion of in loco parentis, it is evident that, in one form or another, it is here to stay. As such, institutions can take steps to incorporate this idea into institutional policies and practice.
Develop a clear, comprehensive, and cohesive definition of the institution-student-parent relationship. When formulating institutional or departmental policies and practices, clearly define the level of involvement the institution will have in the student-parent relationship.
For example, when a parent calls the housing department and asks to have his or her child call home, how will the institution respond? How will the institution respond if a parent calls to complain about a grade or a professor? It’s important that the institution define its role on an institutional and departmental level.
It’s also important that this role is consistent across all campus units. Colleges and universities often send mixed messages to parents. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), an institution can choose to contact parents if their son or daughter is involved in a violent or drug- or alcohol-related incident. Some institutions, however, do not consult parents when their child develops a psychological problem or fails a class. This dichotomy is undoubtedly influenced by federal privacy laws that make most academic, health, and judicial records confidential, but parents are often not explicitly made aware of this fact. Institutions should, therefore, educate parents about the limitations of the institution in the parent-child relationship.
Develop an orientation program for parents about their role in the life of their college student. Most institutions already have both student and parent orientation programs, and some have a program that specifically addresses parents’ role in their child’s time as a college student. This program might include teaching parents how to let go of their child and how to allow the student to learn to become a full-fledged adult. It should also include a section that specifically describes the institution’s role in its relationship with their child. Parents should be educated about the institution’s grading policy, judicial system, and procedures for choosing housing. Their role in these aspects of the institution should also be specifically stated. For example, if the institutional philosophy is such that it does not allow parental involvement in the judicial system, parents should be made specifically, and explicitly, aware of this.
Make sure that the language used in orientation and informational publications matches the institution’s philosophy of in loco parentis. The extent to which a student is expected to control her or his own college experience should not be vague. For example, if the purpose of student staff in the residence halls is not to resolve every problem, but rather to teach residents how to take care of their own problems, make sure this is stated in all communications about on-campus housing.
Parents should not be given the impression that the environment in the residence halls, in fraternities and sororities, or at college-related functions is completed controlled. Parents should know that resources are available to help students deal with problems, but that the ultimate choice about whether or not to use those resources are up to the student.
PRESENT AND FUTURE
As components of society evolve, they augment the roles of parents, students, and the nature of student affairs. The examples from the 1960s and early 1970s illustrate how a societal climate can affect in loco parentis. Political movements, legal decisions, and demographic characteristics have all contributed to the development of the concept. It’s clear that in loco parentis is not a relic of the past, but rather a powerful force in the present.
•Healy, P. (2000, September 14). MIT to pay $6M in ’97 frat death. The Boston Globe, p. A1.
•Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York: Vintage Books.
•Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2003). Millennials go to college. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
•Pollet, S. (2002, October 4). Is in loco parentis at the college level a dead doctrine? New York Law Journal, 228, p. 4.
•Young, J.R. (2003, January 31). A new take on what today’s students want from college. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49, 21, p. A37. Retrieved online at http://chronicle.com.
Nick Sweeton, Assistant Director, Humboldt State University
Jeremy Davis, Residence Life Coordinator, Humboldt State University