Inside the mind of a future helicopter parent

Julie Bryant

Associate Vice President of Retention Solutions

October 4, 2010

Julie Bryant is an expert on student retention. She is the Vice President of Retention Solutions at Noel-Levitz, Inc.
Julie Bryant of Noel-Levitz explains why knowing what parents expect is important to the college experiences of their children.

I’m realizing I may soon be a helicopter parent. The signs are all there: Regular contact with my teenager by texting and phone calls; the desire to help her navigate through life on the best educational path; and the belief that I know what is best for her. Currently, my daughter is a sophomore in high school, but she has begun her college search process and already, I can feel myself hovering! I want to direct her to particular college Web sites; I want to open the packets of information that come in the mail before she does; I want to begin arranging college visits and suggesting what questions she should be asking. Where is the line between assisting and managing? How much will I keep hovering over the next seven years? How similar am I to the parents of your students?

What are today’s parents thinking?

As a Noel-Levitz assessment specialist, I am in the unique position this fall of comparing my parenting experience to the perceptions of parents nationally, using the findings from our Pilot Study: 2010 National Parent Satisfaction and Priorities Report. These new benchmarks are ringing true for me! These initial national data reflect the perceptions of more than 5000 parents of college students from 16 four-year private and public institutions on items that parallel our Student Satisfaction Inventory.

So what are parents of college students across the country saying? Well, not surprisingly, academic issues are top priority. In general, parents want colleges and universities to be committed to academic excellence, to offer intellectual growth experiences, and to ensure that faculty members are knowledgeable, among other things. Other top priorities for parents include quality academic advising, a campus environment that students enjoy, a campus atmosphere that makes students feel cared for as individuals, and knowledgeable admissions staff.

What are the top issues needing additional attention, according to parents? More attention to academic advising is one clear message. Parents reported dissatisfaction with advisors’ concern for students as individuals, advisors being knowledgeable, and advisors helping students to set goals. It is interesting to note that at the 16 institutions represented in the pilot study, two of these advising items were identified by students as strengths, so there was an apparent disconnect on these campuses between what students were perceiving and what parents were perceiving. Among other areas of dissatisfaction identified by parents in the pilot study were access to classes, financial aid awards, security on campus, and concerns that tuition paid isn’t worthwhile.

Why should campuses take time to add parent surveys to their assessment cycle?

A primary reason for surveying parents is simply that students and parents are communicating regularly. Keep in mind the prevalence of cell phones and the routine, easy access of communication through texting and social networking. As a college, you want to know what you should be saying to parents about key issues, so that parents can reinforce certain messages to their children, your students. If a student calls a parent and says, “I need your advice, I think I want to come home,” you want the parent to say, “I think you should stay in college.”

In addition, if you have communicated strategically with the parents, they may also be able to help the student to overcome perceived barriers by saying things like “We know the college can help you get the classes you need and connect you with the right advisor, and there may be additional financial resources available.” If you have data to guide what you are communicating in regular parent e-mails, parent newsletters, and parent portals on your Website, your parents will be better informed, and better able to support your retention efforts.

As a budding helicopter-parent myself, I know I will be expecting these types of communications from the college my daughter chooses, and I won’t be surprised if some schools use their new survey data earlier in the process, too, to influence my thoughts on which college she should choose as we make our college selection. Are you in touch with what your students’ parents need to know from you? Do you know how satisfied they are with their child’s experience at your institution? If you are not surveying your students and their parents on a systematic basis, what critical information are you missing for decision-making purposes?

Parental influence on students is significant and appears to be growing. See this summary of recent research.

About the Author

Julie Bryant of RNL

Julie L. Bryant, associate vice president of retention solutions at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America in the area of satisfaction assessment. Ms Bryant is responsible for client service...

Read more about Julie's experience and expertise

Reach Julie by e-mail at Julie.Bryant@RuffaloNL.com.

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Enrollment, Student Success