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Allison Ewing-Cooper and Kami Merrifield, University of Arizona

Kami Merrifield.jpgAllison Ewing-Cooper.jpgWith all the talk about helicopter parents and overparenting, it is clear there is a new era in academia that includes parents.  Advisors observed an increase in parental involvement in college students’ academics (Merriman, 2007).  While this participation can be useful at times, it is common to hear of parent horror stories and worst-case scenarios.  It can be easy to forget that many parents have an incredible investment of time, love, money, and energy in their child’s education.  A college degree represents an enormous financial investment for many students’ parents.  The impact of a college education is not just financial; a college degree is associated with many quality of life indicators, including overall job satisfaction and more stable employment (Pew Research Center, 2014).  It is no wonder, then, that parents invest emotionally in their child’s participation in college.  There is also evidence that a certain amount of parental involvement is beneficial for students (Harper, Sax, & Wolf, 2012), but parental involvement is not always helpful.

Traditional-aged students start university at a time in their lives when they are in the process of individuating from their families of origin (Blos, 1979).  Students learn to make decisions on their own and take responsibility for these decisions.  Research indicates that, for college-aged students, intrusive, overly involved parenting is harmful to student well-being and hampers their ability to cope with difficult challenges (Segrin, Woszidlo, Givertz, Bauer, & Murphy, 2012).  It is critical for young adults to learn independence and develop problem-solving skills.  

Given the increase in parental involvement and mixed findings on its impact, we, the authors of this article, gathered data from advisors on their perceptions of their interactions with parents.  Additionally, we asked for examples of effective strategies for working with parents.  We surveyed 54 academic advisors at the University of Arizona from ten different colleges.  Most respondents were female (89%), white/European American (80%), and had a master’s degree or higher level of education (72%).

Most advisors reported that they interacted with parents once a week or twice a month (62%).  In general, advisors reported that these interactions were either “very helpful” or “helpful” (57%).  Advisors indicated that these interactions were, overall, “very positive” or “positive” (68%).  Most advisors, with three or more years of experience, specified that they thought parental involvement has increased (53%) since they started advising, but 34% of the advisors indicated that parental involvement has not increased, and 13% reported that they were unsure if parental involvement has increased or not. 

Additionally, the survey included open-ended questions regarding strategies that advisors found most helpful when working with students’ parents.  Five themes emerged from the responses.

Let Parents Have Their Say

 “Letting parents air their concerns for their student is the most successful way to de-escalate [sic] parent frustrations.  Once they feel heard, they are willing to allow their student to act more autonomously.”

Often when people are angry, they simply want to be heard.  By listening to frustrations and validating experiences, advisors can defuse tense situations and move to conversations that are more productive.  It may be tempting to shut an unpleasant conversation down by invoking FERPA, but by simply listening and acknowledging, advisors can calm parents down without saying anything specific about the situation or student. 

Include the Student

“I try to bring the student into the conversation as much as possible.”

The most productive parent interactions involve advisor, parent, and student.  By involving the student, any misperceptions or miscommunications can be cleared up.  These three-way interactions can help promote student autonomy and responsibility by addressing the student directly and allowing the student’s voice to enter the conversation.  The advisor is also able to model good listening skills and see the student as an adult. 

Develop a Game Plan for Parental Involvement

“Notify the parent(s) of FERPA regulations and the impact that has on the topics and/or amount of information you can share with them before the conversation begins.”

Advisors should collaborate with their advising team or departmental personnel to make a game plan and develop policy.  Advisors can be more confident in their interactions with parents by knowing they have the law (FERPA) and their department behind them.  Clear department policies based on FERPA regulations and outlining expectations for parental contact give advisors a safety net.  Outline these expectations on the departmental web page so that parents can understand what information advisors can and cannot share. 

Share General Information in Multiple Ways

“Sending out a monthly newsletter has been most helpful.  Keeping parents informed of dates and deadlines has helped students take a more active role in advising.”

Advisors know what questions parents often ask about academic programs and what information is the most essential for ensuring their children’s success.  There are a number of ways of keeping parents informed without direct contact or specific student information, including:

  • Parent newsletter: share knowledge with parents who subscribe to a listserv or mailing list.  Newsletters help parents keep informed; parents can then help their students remember important dates and deadlines and remind them to meet with their advisor.  However, someone must be in charge of creating the content and consistently delivering the newsletter.      
  • Department website: a specific tab for parent information.  This information is available to everyone, thus it can serve students as well as parents.  Update information regularly.      

The simplest solution may be to respond to parent requests for information as they occur.  Advisors can email fliers and general informational materials when requested.  Since parents are not likely familiar with the jargon in these materials, they need to favor simplicity and brevity.

Be Positive

“Advisors set the tone.  If you are approachable, informative, and helpful, parents reciprocate.  I consider parents to be a useful team member for advising.”

While many advisors have a parent horror story, according to the respondents in the present study, interactions with parents are generally positive or neutral.  Most advisors also reported that interactions with parents were generally helpful.  This finding is consistent with a separate study’s results that students perceive these interactions as generally helpful (Ewing-Cooper & Merrifield, 2016).  Thus, parental involvement may be an opportunity to leverage parental energy into positive student outcomes.  Entering situations with a positive frame of mind and being open to parental contributions can take a potentially bad situation to good.    

It is likely parents will continue to participate in their children’s academic experiences.  Given this involvement, having a plan of action with clear objectives and guidelines for working with parents can help the situation be positive and productive.  Remember that parents can be allies and both parents and advisors want students to succeed.    

Allison Ewing-Cooper, PhD
Assistant Director of Academic Advising
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona
[email protected]

Kami Merrifield, PhD
Senior Academic Advisor II
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona
[email protected]


Blos, P. (1979). The adolescent passage. New York, NY: International University Press.

Ewing-Cooper, A., & Merrifield, K. A. (2016, May). Parental involvement in students’ academic experiences. Paper presented to the Region 10 National Academic Advising Conference, Santa Fe, NM. 

Harper, C. E., Sax, L. J., & Wolf, D. S. (2012). The role of parents in college students’ sociopolitical awareness, academic, and social development. Journal of Student Affairs, Research, and Practice, 49(2), 137-156.

Merriman, L. (2007). It’s your child’s education, not yours. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54, B20.

Pew Research Center. (2014). The rising cost of not going to college. Retrieved from http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/02/SDT-higher-ed-FINAL-02-11-2014.pdf

Segrin, C., Woszidlo, A., Givertz, M., Bauer, A., & Murphy, M. T. (2012). The association between overparenting, parent-child communication, and entitlement and adaptive traits in adult children.  Family Relations, 61(2), 237-252.   

Cite this article using APA style as: Ewing-Cooper, A. & Merrifield, K. (2018, March). Advisors’ perceptions, attitudes, and suggestions for working with parents. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 March 41:1


# Nicole
Wednesday, February 28, 2018 11:38 AM
I really enjoyed the data you present here as my experiences track with what you found. I find that many parents can feel frustrated with wanting to help their students but not being able to talk with someone who can help them know how to help their students. I've found that validating their feelings and positively chatting with them about general policies or requirements is a great approach to talking with parents, even when FERPA limits me from sharing specific details about a student.

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