student success

Parent satisfaction and the college student experience

Julie Bryant

Associate Vice President of Retention Solutions

September 17, 2012

I am just one year away from my daughter Kylie enrolling in college. She is a senior in high school this year, and her college search is well under way. She knows her top two choices, plus she intends to apply to three other colleges. We did the first round of college visits last summer and spring, which helped to eliminate a couple schools from her list. We are now planning to schedule overnight visits at her top two colleges, to confirm that they are the right fit for her.

One key piece I find missing from the recruitment activities is any communication directed to me as a parent, even though I may have an influence on my daughter’s enrollment choice. I know I am not alone in playing this influential role; according to the 2012 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations report, 61 percent of students said that they were researching colleges together with their parents or guardians.

That guiding role does not end when students enter their college experience. Parents can have tremendous influence on student retention as well, something that institutions need to keep in mind. Colleges have an opportunity to use parental influence to their advantage—if parents are given the right information. But do you know which areas are priorities to communicate with the parents of your currently enrolled students?

The results from the 2012 National Parent Satisfaction and Priorities Report provide some insight. The study includes data from the Noel-Levitz Parent Satisfaction Inventory, which surveys parents about their satisfaction with their children’s college experiences and identifies what the parents deem important regarding those experiences. The following chart highlights the items that are viewed as challenges (high importance and lower satisfaction) for parents, while also showing what students at those same institutions listed as challenges or as strengths (high importance and high satisfaction):

This graphic has a table that compares the relative strengths and challenges of an institution according to both parents and students. The table illustrates that although instruction in the major, academic advisor's focus on the individual, and knowledgeable academic advisors are all three considered a strength by the student, these areas are considered challenges by the parents.
College students and their parents sometimes see aspects of the college experience in different ways.

Three items that students perceived as strengths were viewed by parents as areas with room for improvement:

  • Instruction in the major is excellent.
  • Academic advisors are concerned about students as individuals.
  • Academic advisors are knowledgeable.

Students gave high marks to these areas, but parents were not so sure.  If your campus had this kind of data, you could provide additional details to the parents about the quality of the instruction, especially as students take more courses in their specific majors, and also explain how the advising relationship works on your campus.

Several of the other top challenges for parents overlap with areas that are identified by students as well.  These areas all provide opportunities for discussion at orientation, in parent newsletters, on a parent-focused Web site, and during fall family weekends. When are you communicating with the parents of your traditional-age students?

At the 2012 Noel-Levitz National Conference, Marjorie Savage, the director of the Parent Program at the University of Minnesota, conducted a session called “The Parent Perspective: Working With Contemporary College Families.” She shared some of the generational and cultural shifts influencing parent involvement on today’s college campuses.  She noted that because students and parents communicate so frequently these days (in many cases on a daily basis), when parents hear about student problems, they hear the student’s version first. The parents hear about the issue while it is still raw and the parents want to help, but they don’t know how.

As a campus, you can help to provide appropriate communication channels and resources to assist parents with helping their children enrolled at your institution, which ultimately helps you better serve that student.  Rather than being focused on the negative helicopter image of involved parents, you can look for ways to manage and partner with parents on behalf of their students. A couple of communication vehicles that Marjorie suggested were a parent portal Web site (check out the University of Minnesota’s site), a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and Webinars, in addition to more traditional newsletters and campus visit days. Marjorie noted that parents are creative about using technology for talking points with students, and that the process can help the whole family feel like they are a part of the college or university. Utilizing these communication vehicles allows the institution to address issues proactively and ultimately will allow your campus personnel time to focus on other student issues.

In another session at the conference, Jamie Marinis, director of Student Retention Services at Tiffin University (Ohio) identified parents as an “untapped resource.” In order to better connect with parents, Tiffin offers voluntary enrollment in a free parent club, which provides a handbook (including a directory of campus contacts) and a club card that provides parents with bookstore discounts. Tiffin also sends out a parent newsletter four times a year. As the director of student retention, Jamie is the contact person for the parent club.

I am curious to find out about the parent programs that will be offered at Kylie’s top choices. I also wonder what type of parent communications I will receive when she is a student and how I will respond if her campus surveys me.  What communication vehicles does your campus use?  Have you surveyed your parents to understand their perceptions of the student experience? E-mail me your thoughts or leave a comment here.

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...

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