To make sure that her daughter avoids mistakes and reaches her career goals, Stacy told me that she was helping her daughter prepare for graduate programs by doing her own research on the requirements at those schools. Without minimizing the efforts of the students, she believes that they benefit from efforts from parents like herself. Hamilton’s research also pointed to the fact that kids with more involved parents were more likely to finish college and find good paying jobs after graduation. Other research shows that first-generation students who do not have highly engaged parents take and complete fewer classes and earn lower grades than their classmates.
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Responding to the growing parental oversight, many colleges are establishing more formal methods of working with parents. Connecticut’s Fairfield University and Texas A&M University, for example, now have tabs on the front pages of their websites targeted at parents. Some institutions provide a parent-and-guardian track during student orientation and create webinars for parents on topics like homesickness and career services. There are parent “leadership councils” at these schools that act as a voice for parents and provide the administration with input. Universities also reach out to parents with weekly newsletters, Facebook pages, and web chats. Fairfield even has welcome events for incoming parents hosted by current parents in their homes or conference centers as far away as California.
“We are constantly engaging the parent community,” said Jennifer Anderson, the vice president of marketing and communications for Fairfield. She sees it as a positive trend, one that benefits the school. Keeping that engagement high “gives parents the feeling that the college cares and that their kid is on the right track.” Because students are so busy today, she added, parents who learn about events through the weekly newsletter can then nudge their students to attend those events.
In an email response to questions about Texas A&M’s parent-focused efforts, Libby Daggers, an associate coordinator in new student and family programs, wrote: “Our philosophy is that the university, students, and their families are all a part of a collaborative relationship which leads to student success … By providing specific information and easy access to resources we feel we can equip our families with the tools necessary to support their student throughout their time in college.”
But Hamilton had a slightly different take on universities’ motivations for incorporating parents more zealously into the college experience: State support for public higher-education institutions has been declining precipitously in recent years, and schools have been forced to cut administrative expenses. At University of California campuses, as Hamilton noted, only about 10 percent of revenue comes from the state; most of the revenue comes from tuition, in particular from out-of-state students. These state colleges, she believes, are using parents to spot mental-health and academic crises early on, which then helps them maintain a high retention rate and save costs with advisement.