Allison Ewing-Cooper and Kami Merrifield, University of Arizona
Parents of Generation Z students can be supportive, nurturing, and appropriately involved. At the same time, they have been described as helicopters, snowplows, and lawnmowers. However parents are perceived, it’s important to understand that some level of parental involvement is part of most college students’ experiences—and that this involvement can be positive. In a pair of studies, Ewing-Cooper and Merrifield (2016, 2018) found that 68% of advisors reported that the majority of their interactions with parents were positive or very positive and 90.3% of students reported satisfaction with the level of their parents’ involvement.
Wartman and Savage (2008) offer four reasons for the increase in parental involvement over the 21st century. First, with the ease of communication through technology, parents can always be informed. Second, with the increase in the cost of college and the decrease in state and federal aid, there has been a dramatic increase in the financial investment from parents; from 2000 to 2016, Parent Plus loans tripled (Granville, 2022). Third, changes in expectations around parenting call for greater parental involvement at all stages of children’s lives. Fourth, with more students in higher SES groups attending college at greater rates, parents are more likely to have attended college themselves (Higher Education Research Institute, 2019) and are able to offer advice based on their own college experiences.
Theory and Involvement
Despite its sometimes bad reputation, parental involvement doesn’t have to be viewed negatively. In fact, from a developmental perspective, parental involvement is not only appropriate but can be beneficial. While individuation is still an important task of adolescence and early adulthood (Chickering, 1969), healthy attachment and emotional connection between a young adult and parent can lead to positive adjustment and healthy individuation (Schwartz & Buboltz, 2004). When viewing parental involvement through an attachment theory perspective, parents provide an important role for students.
Students can use their parents as secure bases from which to explore their new collegiate environments and check back in with their parents when they encounter trouble (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Also, parents can use scaffolding over the course of their student’s academic career, providing a lot of help in the beginning and less as they transition into their junior and senior years (Wood et al., 1976).
Parental Expectations About Academic Advising
As advisors, it’s important to understand parents’ expectations about academic advising and use this information to create better relationships. To gain insight into the perceptions of parents regarding academic advising and their involvement in students’ college careers, 330 parents completed an IRB-approved online survey during an optional family essentials program at new student orientation at a four-year public university. The family essentials program cost a small fee. A “parent” was defined as a biological, adopted, or stepparent or legal guardian. The majority of parents reported belonging to Generation X (87.5%), identified as female (81.2%), and reported having a bachelor’s degree or higher (86.9%). Twenty-five percent of parents were launching their first child to college and their average number of children was 2.5.
Parents identified responsibilities of academic advisors from a provided list of possible tasks. Most parents indicated they thought advisors should help students pick classes (94.2%), help students with career exploration and future planning (90.9%), and help students learn about and find internships (78.8%). Less popular, but interesting, answers included 25% of parents indicating that advisors should notify them if something is going on with their student and 20% said advisors should monitor students’ grades. When asked how often students should see their advisors, parents were split between once a month (47.6%) and once a semester (47.9%). Eighty percent of parents said they were aware of FERPA.
Additionally, parents indicated their plans for involvement with their students’ education. Seventy percent reported that they plan to talk to their student about their education once a week while 20% said they would communicate once a month. Most indicated they would be involved via financial (97.6%) and emotional (98.8%) support. Furthermore, 37.6% indicated they would support their student by helping them pick a major and 40% would help them choose classes. Only 19.7% said they’d help with social activities.
There was also an open-ended question that asked, what is the most important thing your student’s academic advisor can do for them? Some common themes emerged, including providing care and help. One parent wrote, “be personable, relatable, caring. Engage and inspire.” Another common theme was keeping students on track for graduation. One participant wrote, “guide them to graduate in four years.” Other parents wanted advisors to “provide a ‘one stop shop’ for student’s academic needs to minimize being bounced from office to office” and another wrote, “notice him! Feel as if he has a relationship with someone who cares about and is invested in his academic experience.”
Building Better Understanding
Parents plan to be involved, so involve them (to an extent)!
Most parents reported planning to be involved with financial and emotional support—both of which are vital for student retention. Parents’ financial support can make all the difference in a student staying or leaving (Olbrech et al., 2016). Past studies have found a relationship between parental emotional support and university success (e.g., Strom & Savage, 2014), so parental support can play an important role in retention and graduation.
Advisors may get nervous when parents plan to be involved beyond emotional and financial assistance, such as helping choose a major (37.6%) and helping choose classes (40%). However, it is difficult to know, without talking to these parents, how they define “help.” Help could mean picking classes or listening to the student discuss several options and then guiding the student to a decision. Also, the study was conducted with first-year students’ parents. Would these numbers remain as high for fourth-year students? Likely not. Again, parents might provide scaffolding as students move through their academic journey. If advisors meet with parents and students, they could model appropriate methods of helping students pick majors and classes by using the “I advise, you decide” model.
Some Education Around Advising is Necessary
Not surprisingly, parents don’t know exactly what academic advisors do. Perhaps their own college experience with an advisor was very minimal or they didn’t attend college at all. Maybe all they know is their student’s high school guidance counselor (perhaps why some parents indicated they believed advisors should monitor student grades or notify them when something is going on). This is where parental education is important. Advisors could provide information on websites, at new student orientation, or through electronic parent newsletters. If an advisor is meeting with a parent, they could take a few minutes to explain what they do. Instead of just saying what an advisor doesn’t do, word things positively, speak directly to the student, reminding them that, unlike in high school, the responsibility for reaching out is on the student, but that you, as the advisor, are accessible and ready to help! This helps reinforce to the parent that they should encourage their student to reach out to their advisor if they have questions.
Parents Want the Same Thing as Advisors
All parties want the student to succeed, so work together! Instead of viewing parents as the enemy (which they are not), parents and advisors can work as a team to mutually support the student. Even in a difficult conversation with a parent, establish common ground: helping the student successfully navigate college and graduate. Parents understand the needs of their children and can offer resources the institution cannot. Advisors are experts in what is needed for students to graduate. Working together can best help the student. Instead of wasting energy trying to remove parental influence, advisors can provide guidance to both parents and students during this critical transition and establish themselves as a trusted resource.
Director of Academic Advising and Student Success
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona
Student Success and Retention Specialist
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona
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Cite this article using APA style as: Ewing-Cooper, A., & Merrifield, K. (2022, December). Parents of first year students: Expectations of academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 45(4). [insert url here]