Tuesday, September 02, 2008


The Dropoff

Although community colleges have a more age-diverse student population than most of the rest of higher ed, the average age of cc students has been dropping for a while. Our fastest growth sectors are traditional-aged students and dual-enrollment students still in high school. Since we're getting more of the classic fresh-out-of-high-school crowd, we're seeing more first-time parental dropoffs than in the past.

Dropoffs at cc's aren't the same as dropoffs at many four-year schools, since most cc's don't have dorms. (This is apparently starting to change in New York.) More commonly, it isn't a dropoff at all, but the student living at home and driving himself to and from school. But psychologically, it's still very much a milestone.

In a way, I envy the dorm-bearing schools their clarity. When Taylor is dropped off at the dorm, and the car has one less person in it heading home, it's hard not to notice the change. At commuter colleges, the change is easier to ignore. Last year she spent her days at high school, this year at college, what's the difference?

It's a big one. And it's easy to forget after all these years.

In the K-12 system, as a student, your course is mostly charted for you. Yes, there are a few elective slots in high school, but the basic trajectory is pretty much given. This is especially true if you live in one of those districts where college is the default assumption for high school grads. With a relatively clear path, there's an institutional emphasis on keeping you on the path. And you don't have to think too much about the path, since it's fairly obvious.

In college, for most people, that clarity is gone. (Some very clearly-defined tracks exist in selected majors, but they're exceptions.) And the abrupt shift from clarity to confusion is even tougher when combined with suddenly living away from parents, if that happens. (Every January we get a non-trivial number of 18 year olds who 'went away' to college in September, only to fall victim to the uncertainties and temptations of dorm life. They come to us for a fresh start under their parents' watchful eyes.) Suddenly, not thinking about the path isn't really an option; there's no 'default' setting. You have to make choices.

At cc's, it's possible to postpone some of that. At my campus, the single largest major is the generic 'transfer major,' which consists of the staples of “general education” for most majors at most four-year colleges. Between living at home and taking the transfer major, it's possible to buy time and still make meaningful progress. I suspect that more students could benefit from this, if they knew it existed.

Still, even if you live at home and take the transfer major, there's a basic assumption by the college that you're responsible for your own fate. You make your own choices, for better or worse, and nobody will save you from yourself. Help is available if you ask for it, but you have to ask.

Some parents seem to take a while to grasp the rule change. I get calls from parents asking why they weren't told that Johnny was failing a class. The short answer is FERPA, but the long answer is that it's Johnny's problem and not theirs. That's true even if they're paying the tuition. It seems cold and self-serving, but I'm increasingly convinced that it serves a real educational purpose.

Colleges teach in many ways; the classroom is only one of them. Looking back, part of what I learned in college was how to function when overwhelmed, how to produce when outgunned, and how to stay sane in absurd situations. I learned – imperfectly, of course – to cope. Nobody coped for me. Some of that involved falling on my face and making mistakes that, looking back, were genuinely stupid. But that's part of the experience. As a parent, it's painful to watch your kid stumble. I get that. But stumbling is part of the learning process.

(In my own case, part of what I learned was that I needed to get over myself. In high school I was The Guy in certain subjects, and could coast on what I had. Having learned bad habits, I spent the first semester of college getting my ass handed to me over and over again, and I have the GPA to prove it. It was painful and awkward and frustrating, but frankly, I needed that.)

Even if the college is local and the student is at home, it's a change. The kind of coasting that high school makes possible becomes impossible, and parents need to respect that. It's part of the value of college. Let the kid stumble. Let her get angst-y and confused and frustrated. Let her learn to deal with all of that. (Yes, there are limits, and there are times when it's appropriate to ask for help, but don't be too quick with that.) If she doesn't get the chance to learn those things, you're shortchanging her.

Good luck, parents. I feel your pain. And I'll feel my own sooner than I care to admit.

Thanks for the Dean's perspective of what the parents bring to the table. We too are more frequently hearing the sound of helicopter parents at orientation.

My comments on college orientation last year were more student centered, but maybe parents need to hear some of the same messages. That is especially true if they didn't go to college.

If the kid is living at home, item 3 (about the need to study 2 hours for every hour in class because more learning takes place outside of class rather than in class) is really important. Having a good place at home to study or understanding that the child needs to hang out at the college library is more important than in HS.

But parents also need to know that HS classes were always taught to the bottom 20%, because teachers were responsible for keeping failure rates low and keeping their school grade up. In college we do not have to pass someone who fails the tests, so double-secret extra credit to "earn" a C--- will not be there. This shifts responsibility for learning to their child (along with career planning), as you noted.
Great post. It seems like a great idea for CCs to put together a parents packet to help them prep their kids for college. I don't know if these exist for a variety of reasons (state laws of privacy, etc.) I do know they have some info at private schools for parents. Could describe your experience with this?

For the first time after 9 years of teaching college, a week before classes start I received an email from student inquiring about a materials list. I did question the parental involvement in this inquiry, but it did come from the official student email address. I do not encounter too many overachievers where I teach, but I am keeping an open mind. I do think it is important that parents reinforce the idea of responsibility to their kids and being properly prepared for class is a good start. The expense of college is increasing, parents who are paying should be able to put a little pressure on their kids to take it seriously. I read an article where an academic made his kids work to pay for the their first year of college, so they may have a different perspective. Then he would pay for the last three. This is such a great idea because it not only encourages kids to take college seriously as they are paying for the first year, but it changes the dynamic for choosing and applying to a college or scholarships and improving high school academic performance.
Expect to get more of those inquiries, urbanartiste. As students begin to realize they can buy used textbooks from Amazon.com, ebay, etc., the requests for ISBNs increases every semester.
I just wanted to say that this was a great post and it offered a rare new way to look at the HS-college change.
You wrote: "The short answer is FERPA, but the long answer is that it's Johnny's problem and not theirs. That's true even if they're paying the tuition."

I agree that the long answer is true even if they're paying the tuition, but your short answer may not always be true.

It's a little known fact, but colleges can't hide behind FERPA for a child who can be claimed as a dependent on the parents' tax returns.

FERPA does not REQUIRE colleges to share educational records with parents of dependent students, but it does ALLOW them to do so.

A number of expensive residential colleges routinely assume that traditional-age students are dependents automatically give parents access to their children's grades and educational records. See, for example, this policy statement by Boston University:


If a student is NOT a dependent, then the burden is on him to inform BU of that fact. Otherwise, BU will give his parents access to his records.

There seems to be a lot of confusion among college administrators on this subject, and I think it behooves colleges to know that they are completely within their rights to share information with parents of dependent students.

"It's Johnny's problem and not theirs," is a perfectly appropriate philosophy, in my view (except in extraordinary circumstances, e.g., Cho at Virginia Tech), but colleges should be upfront about the fact that it is THE COLLEGE's CHOICE to share or not share educational records with parents of dependent students.

Colleges should stop hiding behind FERPA and claiming that their "hands are tied" by FERPA, when in fact FERPA does not tie their hands in the case of dependent students. (Most unmarried full-time students under 24 who provide less than 50% of their own support qualify as their parents' dependents. Some part-time students, married, and older students may also qualify. The policy of "Assume all students are dependent unless they explicitly tell us otherwise," seems to be okay with the Federal Dept of Education.)

It is worthy of note that many of these kids' contemporaries are leading platoons in Iraq.

There's something wrong about how we fail to help our adolescents actually transition to adulthood.
It's not just CCs that have this problem; it's endemic as well at commuter campuses offering BA/BS/MA/MS degrees as well. I've had parents show up for advising sessions, and I have, in those sessions, tried to speak almost exclusively to the student, and, in the same sessions, had the parent asking almost all the questions. I've had parents calling to tell me their kid won't be in class and asking what work s/he has to do. I've had parents asking about akeup exams (about which I have a dtailed, explicit set of policies in my syllabus). I've had one parent who wanted access, separately from the student, to our on-line course management system.

All of which drives me crazy. I have to keep telling myself it's only four more years.
Thanks for your thoughtful post. As a 25-year college registrar, I appreciate the difficulties faced by all parties in the privacy rights transition.

I also want to respond to Sally, who is concerned because schools sometimes hide from parents behind FERPA. I agree that schools should be forthright that it is their decision to elect not to disclose dependent student records to parents without student consent. School officials shouldn't mislead their constituents about anything! However, it is my opinion that the practice of Boston University and other post-secondary schools who assume the financial dependency of their students is based on a misinterpretation of FERPA and can lead to FERPA violations. FERPA regulations state that a non-consensual disclosure can be made if "The disclosure is to parents, as defined in § 99.3, of a dependent student, as defined in section 152 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986." (http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/reg/ferpa/rights_pg19.html#17) The regulations make no provision for the assumption that a student is a dependent. Therefore, when such a disclosure is made to the parents of a non-dependent (in fact) student, it is a violation of the regulation on its face.

In the early days of FERPA such assumptions were, indeed, adopted by post-secondary schools that felt a strong commitment to the doctrine of in loco parentis. I was a proponent of this idea myself. However, discussions with FERPA authorities over the years convinced me and others that it was inappropriate.

On the other hand, FERPA does require all colleges and universities to publish procedures by means of which students can permit their "records" to be disclosed to "third parties." Once a student attends a post-secondary school, parents are third parties, under FERPA.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue over the past 30 years. As well, I have talked to hundreds of parents, students, and other administrators. I have concluded that the provision for student consent to the release of their records is appropriate and adequate. Here are some thoughts about why I feel that way:

Philosophical. I agree with Dean Dad's comments in his original post. There just has to be a time when children and parents begin to accept the fact that the kids are responsible for their own lives. Starting college might as well be one of those times. As a parent, the idea of suddenly being defined as a "third party" in my child's life raises my hackles, but that is an essential part of the maturing process of a family.

Arguments about who has rights in a family are dysfunctional. The allocation of rights in a society does not create adversarial relationships, it mediates adversarial relationships. Asking a school to mediate dysfunctional family relationships does nothing to help the real problem. Parents have often said to me: "I'm paying my child's school bills! Don't you think I should be able to find out how she is doing in school?" Yes, I do. But if you are paying the bills of a person who won't be accountable for the money, I think it is inappropriate to ask the school to be responsible for your inability to mediate your own contracts, or your own family relationships.

Administrative. It is a simple matter for students to have a school tell their parents how they are doing. A proper "consent" under FERPA tells the school who to give information to, what information to give, and when. For example, a student can say to the school, "Send a copy of my grade reports to my parents every term." That is also pretty simple for the school to do.

However, consider the implications of a policy that requires a school to give parents blanket access to student information. Does the term "school" mean faculty? Does it mean the student work-study employees in the registrar's office? Does "access" mean that the parents are entitled to know everything that any employee of the school knows? When employees contract to work at a school should they be required to agree to talk to any parent about anything related to their students at any time as often and as long as the parents wish?

Dean Dad mentioned, "I get calls from parents asking why they weren't told that Johnny was failing a class." In most schools a teacher isn't even required to tell a student when s/he is failing the class! (And, over the years, when I have asked students why they didn't take steps to avoid failing, the majority of them told me that they didn't know they were failing.) Post-secondary schools typically believe that they should be expected to provide their students with the grading criteria for their classes and the resources to pass them. The students are expected to avail themselves of that information.

These are a few of the administration issues: If a school has the right to tell parents how their child is doing in school, is that a proactive or reactive right? In other words, does it convey the responsibility on the school to assume what parents want to/should know, and to notify them? Does it convey the responsibility to respond to any and all questions a parent asks? Does it convey the responsibility on all school employees? These are real questions that will really occur--frequently. Moreover, if the school does not agree with some parents on the answers to these questions, the parents will still think the school's policy is wrong!

Finally, granting parental rights to student information presents a significant administrative problem that doesn't exist for the student him/herself. When the time comes to convey the student information to the parents, how shall it be conveyed? Most of the time the parents won't personally be present and will want to talk to a school employee about the student by telephone, or e-mail. Many FERPA authorities (I would say most) agree that these forms of communication for privileged information is impermissible under FERPA, because there is no adequate means of identifying the recipient of the information as the person who is authorized to receive it.

As a registrar, I have heard many arguments for using various techniques to minimize the possibility of someone falsifying the identity of a parent over the phone. For example, "I'll tell you my son's birth date, or social security number." There are two problems with such ideas: 1) They create even more administrative cost for the school; and, 2) The custodian of the information is held to an absolute standard by FERPA: Don't release the information to an unauthorized person (period). Minimizing the possibility of unauthorized disclosure will not protect a school against a FERPA complaint about disclosure to even a malicious person who misrepresents him/herself as a student's parent.

On the other hand, students themselves can disclose their school information to anyone they wish, by any means. They are never in danger of a FERPA violation.

I hope these comments will put the matter of student privacy into a little better perspective. I have been a college registrar and the parent of college students, simultaneously. I have even been the registrar at a college at which my children were enrolled. As such, FERPA and the privacy policies of the school didn't even permit me to legally access the records of my own children without their permission, in most cases. Even though I could easily have done so, I didn't.

FERPA is a well-intentioned law designed to protect the privacy of students and their parents. I believe in FERPA and I take it seriously!
As a former HS, CC full-timer and now a full-timer at an R1 (not a promotion, just noting for experience) I see this difference also in-class, where, we as teachers think we have made the difference between HS and college quite explicit.

For example:
In HS the onus was on me to tell students that they were in danger of failing (repeatedly) but at the uni level I can just give them their tests back and assume that they recognize that they are in danger.

I think there are a number of places where 'orientation' could be quite helpful for freshmen/transfers/returners, but trying to pack it all into 3 chaotic days is also problematic. Your brain just gets so full that you can't possibly process all of it.

I'm a fan of some sort of weekly 'transition' class for new students (in theory), but they often seem week in practice. But, this seems like a 1-credit possibility to me...

CCPhysicist: I have never been pressured by my admin to pass a certain percent of my students. There was NO extra credit given in my classes. Perhaps HS in your area is different.
I've written some non-obvious advice to freshman that may help parents get the idea
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