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Melissa Irvin, Tennessee Tech University–Cookeville

Melissa IrvinCollege students are adults.  It is a common refrain heard in Student Services and Academic Support offices at colleges and universities across the country.  However, the fact remains that the “traditional college student experience” – the one where 18-year-olds left their parents’ nest to claim independence – is becoming less and less common.  Instead, the traditional age college students are more and more reliant on support from their parents to attend college (Kepic, 2006).  This increased support means increased levels of parental involvement at all levels of the college experience: translating into more phone calls, more emails, and more office visits with postsecondary personnel (Kepic, 2006).    Academic planning and support is a primary area of interest which results in more frequent and more consistent parental involvement in advisement and career counseling (Grasgreen, 2012).

For academic advisors, many of whom believe that the advisement process is essential to successful student development, the presence of parents at advisement meetings or during registration sessions is often seen as obtrusive and disruptive (Kepic, 2006).  But this is the new reality. The patterns of parental involvement in higher education are apt to continue along a similar path.  How can academic advisors adapt to these changing dynamics?  K-12 education has long since discovered that parent–school partnerships can be harnessed as a tool to improve student achievement, reduce truancy, and prevent behavioral problems in school (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005).  What lessons can be learned from their strategies that can be beneficial to academic support personnel in higher education?  Primarily, it is long overdue that academic advisors recognize the value of parents as a resource to contribute to student growth and achievement while balancing the desire to cultivate students’ adult development.

Flipping A Switch: Parental Involvement in K-12 Education

Unlike postsecondary education, there is a wealth of research supporting the positive impact of parental involvement in K-12 schools and even more studies offering suggestions to best establish effective parent-school relationships.  Perhaps some of the suggestions for elementary and secondary school teachers and administrators can help academic advisors and student support personnel reframe their negative opinions on parental involvement.  After all, for parents who are accustomed to schools that covet their opinions and beg for their participation, it can be just as shocking to transition to higher education where they are told to leave it to the experts and let their children handle it themselves.

Hoover-Dempsey et al.(2005) compiled a number of studies investigating why parents get involved and providing suggestions for facilitating effective involvement.  They categorize their suggestions into two categories: improving the institution’s capacity and the parents’ ability to be involved (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2005).  Examples of suggestions from Hoover-Dempsey and others (2005) include:

  • Create a climate where parents and families feel welcome;
  • Provide resources to teach school personnel effective strategies for school-family relationships;
  • Increase awareness of parents’ perspectives on education and goals for learning;
  • Learn about a student’s culture and family circumstances;
  • Use the school’s existing structure to enhance opportunities for parental involvement;
  • Clearly communicate school events where parental involvement is welcomed and encouraged;
  • Define effective parental involvement;
  • Recognize parents have an important role to play in the educational process;
  • Provide parents with specific guidance on how to be involved and what the positive effects can be from effective involvement.

Not surprisingly, many of the suggestions above are similar to ones offered to academic advisors and institutions when working to deal with parents, particularly the importance of establishing guidelines for parents to govern their involvement in advisement sessions (Kepic, 2006).  However the tenor of many of the articles on this topic as it relates to higher education is more like offering damage control than teaching advisors to develop an asset.

Parents: A Resource Not a Roadblock

Using the general suggestions from Hoover-Dempsey and others (2005) as a framework, there are three factors that can be essential in reshaping the attitudes of academic advisors about parental involvement:

  • Recognize ways that parental involvement in postsecondary education can be beneficial;
  • Advisors must be more attuned to family culture and circumstances as well as how that can impact higher education choices and views on learning;
  • Clearly communicate areas where parental involvement is welcome and appreciated.

Instead of focusing on the incidents when parents may cross the line to become “over-involved,” such as filling out admissions applications or calling offices pretending to be their child (Kepic, 2006), advisors must examine the students they serve, the resources of the advising department, and their institution as a whole to start to identify how parents can benefit areas of student success.  Recent research by NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education begins to reveal that “closeness is not necessarily dependence” when examining relationships between college students and their parents (Grasgreen, 2012).  In fact, both male and female students with involved parents were shown to be more autonomous and engaged in more career planning than other students (Grasgreen, 2012).

In addition, as more colleges and universities enroll more students from underserved populations, the dynamic between parents and students could be an effective vehicle for improving student outcomes.  Students from different cultural backgrounds can benefit from increased contact with their families, especially if they are part of a minority population on campus (Herndon & Hirt, 2004). For example, families of Black students may feel that the college experience is a collective one; the degree earned is an achievement that benefits the entire family (Herndon & Hirt, 2004).  Another issue could be that minority parents are likely to be more concerned about their child’s ability to receive equal support and resources (Herndon & Hirt, 2004).  Advisors must recognize that the same cultural differences that govern interactions with students should inform interactions with their parents.

By embracing a new perspective that acknowledges parents’ role in postsecondary education in a positive way, academic advisors may discover new methods to improve student success outcomes like course completion, retention and graduation rates.

Melissa Irvin
Academic Advisor/Counselor
College of Education
Tennessee Tech University – Cookeville, TN
[email protected]


Grasgreen, A. (2012, March 28). Parents: Help or hindrance?. Retrieved from

Herndon, M. K., & Hirt, J. B. (2004). Black students and their families: What leads to success in college. Journal of Black Studies, 34(4), 489-513.

Hoover-Dempsey, K. V., Walker, J. M., Sandler, H. M., Whetsel, D., Green, C. L., Wilkins, A. S., &  Closson, K. (2005). Why do parents become involved? Research findings and implications. The Elementary School Journal, 106(2), 105-130.

Kepic, G. (2006). Causes and Implications of Parental Involvement in the Advising Process. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site: https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Parent-involvement-in-advising.aspx


Cite this article using APA style as:


Irvin, M. (2012, December). A new attitude: Rethinking advisor interactions with parents. Academic Advising Today, 35(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]



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