Beyond Parents Weekend: Why College Parent Engagement Matters

We are not advocating parent helicoptering. Engagement is not hovering.

College students need to practice their independence, make their own decisions, take responsibility for their education, and begin to lay the foundation for their future. But when you drop your student off on Move-in Day, your parenting job doesn’t end — it simply changes. (Actually, it’s not simple, but it changes.) When your student graduates from college, your parenting job doesn’t end — it changes once again. You are a parent for life.

However, there’s a difference between checking in with your student and checking up on your student. That can be the difference between helicoptering and engagement.

Why are parents so involved?

Throughout most of our student’s school years, the messaging has been that parental involvement correlates with success.  We’ve been told we need to partner with the school to support our students and to send them the message that their education matters.  Students are used to us being involved — and many, perhaps the majority, want it to continue. Why should we believe that things will change when those same students head to college?

But it does change. Parental engagement on the college level needs to look different.

In addition to having been told that being involved is important, parents know that college is expensive! Actively working with our student is a way to protect our investment. We want to ensure that our student graduates on time. We want to ensure that our student secures a good job. And we want to ensure that our student is happy and fulfilled.  In her book, Parenting to a Degree, author Laura Hamilton  suggests that many parents are involved to ensure that their student ”finish college and get a good job.” It’s a tall order.

When does involvement become over-involvement?

There is no doubt that parents today are more involved with their college students’ lives than in previous generations. Gone are the days when parents dropped students off on Move-in Day, perhaps talked by phone a couple of times during the first months, and then first saw their students again at Thanksgiving.

We’ve been encouraged to be involved, and now we have the tools to do that — even from a distance. Researcher and professor Barbara Hofer, author of the book, The iConnected Parent¸ suggests that the cell phone has profoundly changed student-parent communication.  The cell phone has become the ”electronic tether” that can potentially thwart students’ process of becoming independent.

We want to support our student.  But we walk a fine line.

Consider whether you’ve ever done any of the following:

  • Have you called your student to be sure that they are awake and up for class?
  • Have you edited a paper?
  • Have you written an email on your student’s behalf, using your student’s email account?
  • Have you contacted a professor about a test or grade or assignment?
  • Do you use an app that tracks your student’s class attendance?
  • Do you check in with your student multiple times a day?

These are not fictional scenarios, they happen.  And in most cases they cross that fine line.

Why does appropriate parent engagement matter?

Appropriate college parent engagement can send a strong, positive message to your student about the value of their college education and your belief in their growth. You know your student best. You can watch and listen for changes and messages that may indicate trouble. As parents, you have a perspective on your student that the college will never have — but remember that the college can get to know your student in ways that you might not.

Imagine a three legged stool.  It takes three legs to hold the stool up.  If one is taken away, or is too short or too long, the stool will fall over.  Student success is like that stool.  Three legs — student, college, parents.  Your student’s success relies on all three distinct parts.

How does your student’s college view parents?

Obviously, if you’re going to be one leg of your student’s success, it’s important that the college recognize the part you play.  If you’re wondering how best to be engaged, begin by considering how the college views parents.

What might college parent engagement look like?

According to Marjorie Savage, researcher on college parenting and author of You’re On Your Own But I’m Here if You Need Me, parents are a positive element when they-

  • Understand the student experience and are aware of campus resources
  • Understand and support the institution’s goals for student development and learning
  • Know when to step in to help and when to empower students to take responsibility
  • Connect with the institution, participate in campus events, help others, and support higher education and the institution.

Specifically, what can you do?

  • Be interested in what your student is doing. Listen carefully, offer suggestions when necessary, but don’t dictate solutions.
  • Encourage and support your student when tough times occur.
  • Know campus resources and policies, offer suggestions, then step back and let your student take over.
  • Stay in contact with your student — but not too much — by phone, email, text, and snail mail (students love to find something in their mailbox).
  • Keep an eye on the college calendar. Talk about what’s happening on campus — midterms, events, issues.
  • Send those little unexpected things — a card, a care package, clippings from the local newspaper.
  • If you can, attend any programs for parents — Orientation, Parents Weekend.
  • Connect with other parents on social media. Share stories, commiserate, celebrate — but be careful to respect your student’s privacy.
  • Volunteer for a parent council or parent organization.
  • Volunteer in the career office to mentor students or provide internships.
  • Attend campus events — athletics, performing arts, panels, public events.
  • Find ways to be involved with the college community, but not necessarily directly with your student

Because no one knows your student as well as you do, you can help your student make sense of their college experiences and stick it out if times get rough. Your engagement reinforces for your student the importance to their success of the balance of student, parents, and college.

Related articles:

Parent Relations Offices Offer Parents an Opportunity for Involvement

Cheering Your College Student On from a Distance

Making the Most of Your Phone Calls with Your College Student


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2 thoughts on “Beyond Parents Weekend: Why College Parent Engagement Matters”

  1. Thank you for this article!
    I’m constantly trying to find a balance between not interfering in a child’s student life but also knowing about his successes and failures in studies.
    I don’t always do well – sometimes I ask too much about how the day went, which makes the child think that I do not trust him. And when I don’t ask, sometimes I miss something important – a problem with the test or a child arguing with the professor.
    But still, I try.
    You are right that parents should be interested in their children’s lives, but they should also let them make their own decisions. I’m just trying to find that balance.

    • As parents, we’re on that see-saw all of the time. It’s not a new phenomenon in college. It started when we had to decide whether to let them cry a bit or pick them up right away. And it continues as some of us try to decide whether to make suggestions about how to raise our grandchildren. :) It’s all part of the parent job description.


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