Friday, July 22, 2011


Orienting Parents

Should there be a separate orientation for the parents of new students?

The idea is gaining some traction locally, and I have to admit seeing some logic to it. It represents an intersection of separate trends, but it also raises some tricky issues.

Addressing parents as a separate part of new student orientation is helpful for first-generation students, since frequently neither the students nor the parents know quite what to expect. For many, their only frame of reference is high school, which is a fundamentally different animal. The family may not understand the time commitment involved, for example, or some of the unwritten rules (like the need to buy your own books).

I’m told that there’s also a different cultural orientation to education; in some communities, one person going to college is understood as the family going to college. And that makes sense when people rely on each other for childcare, supplemental income, transportation, and the like. I was raised with the idea of “going away” to college, which is what I did, but that isn’t universally true.

(At Snooty Liberal Arts College, we had “parents’ weekend” each year, when parents would appear from afar to take their kids out for dinner. It was a chance to show appreciation to the folks who actually paid the bills, while still implying a respectful distance. Nobody would have called it an orientation; it was assumed that everyone knew the rules.)

On the other end of the spectrum, parental orientations can help set boundaries for the generation of helicopter parents. Having learned, over the years, to be zealous advocates for their kids every step of the way, some of them have to be told to back off. Every year I have a conversation with some parent who just can’t accept that paying the tuition bill doesn’t entitle her to a report card, but it doesn’t. Best to know that upfront.

Where I bristle, though, is at the (perhaps necessary) acknowledgement that the traditional default expectation of college -- students are adults -- is falling away.

To be sure, that expectation has always been a bit of wishful thinking. In the grand sweep of time, it wasn’t that long ago that “in loco parentis” was the way of things. But in the second half of the twentieth century -- when most community colleges were born -- the default assumption was that students are independent monads, making the choices that make sense to them.

A recent paper from the CCRC casts useful doubt on this assumption. Drawing on behavioral economics, it suggests that too much choice can lead to suboptimal decision processes and thereby to suboptimal outcomes. Put differently, it suggests that a soft paternalism -- a deliberate winnowing of choices -- is likely to lead to the greatest levels of success.

If we take that perspective seriously -- and there’s good evidence that we should -- then the argument for acknowledging a greater parental role upfront is hard to deny. Even though some of us aren’t entirely comfortable with the theoretical implications, the facts on the ground suggest that a much more explicitly directive role for the institution will help the students who most need help.

If it must be done, it must be done. Wise and worldly readers, if you were putting together an orientation program for parents of traditional-aged students, how would you do it? What would you include?

I think this is a difference between 4--years and CCs, as every 4-year I know has had concurrent orientation for parents with undergrads during summers. Parents attend sessions on financial aid and paying for college, supportive resources available to students, coping with the child "going away" to college, policies about dorms and other issues like drinking, etc, as well as information on how to be supportive to your child while s/he is at school. I have also heard tell of panels of other parents.

I think these are valuable for many reasons. One study I read about found that the first thing new students do after getting a new, challenging assignment in a class is to call their parents to discuss it. So, they found it useful to let parents know about reference librarians, the writing center, etc. And, as you said, it is helpful to parents who never attended college to get a sense of "how things work." My own parents could have used that a little more, as they didn't really understand how colleges work.
I think it might be a good idea to help parents (and students) understand that a bachelor's degree (or even a master's/doctorate) isn't necessarily a guarantee of a good job anymore. My own mom, who is very smart and has a master's herself, doesn't quite understand that my own master's degree (in history) doesn't entitle me to a good job making at least $X per year. It's good to emphasize that a degree or certification may well open more doors than for a high school grad, but that guarantee isn't there anymore.
Just FYI, I haven't sat through one recently, but I think we start with them together and then split parents and students for more focused presentations. Further, we split the students up into small groups based on placement without telling them what the group numbers mean. No reason for transfer students and 100% prep students to get the same message as new college-ready students, and AS students should probably get their own session as well. The parents are back with the students when it comes time to pick classes.

My suggestions are vague because your college and community are clearly very different from ours.

1) The sub-group of parents that show up is a very valuable one. They are engaged with their child's decision to go to college, and this support must be encouraged as well as molded (with that intro to FERPA).

2) Think like you are in a classroom. You know that only a few items from a lecture will sink in, and then only with certain types of repetition and active participation. Make up some lists and prioritize, then discard most of it. Consider putting at least one important "student" item on the parent's agenda, and vice versa, to weakly reinforce it.

I am 100% in favor of a more prescriptive approach that limits choices. Even so, you should see the number of different paths that result from various possible placement scores. It is a nightmare.
As a college student, I greatly appreciate the assumption that college students are adults capable of making their own choices and I would greatly resent any attempt to force my mom to play a role in my education.

The "soft paternalism" that made me miss work to attend those useless mandatory college orientations was bad enough. If there were mandatory parental orientations, it would be a huge barrier for me.

I don't know my father but my mom has a mental illness (for which she gets SSI) and an addiction to alcohol, painkillers, and cocaine. To get her to an orientation, I would have to bribe her with at least $20, probably $30. And then she would embarrass the hell out of me.

When I started college, I finally had the opportunity to make my own impression instead of being stigmatized or pitied for my mom's dysfunctional behavior. I would go out of my way to find a college that didn't have a parental orientation just to avoid the public humiliation.

So PLEASE, if you're going to make parental orientations, make them optional!

That said, I really wish my mom and the parents of other first-generation college students understood the following:

1. To get our Pell Grants and other aid, we NEED our parents to give us their social security numbers and a copy of their SSI checks or tax forms.
This is THE MOST frustrating thing for me and a couple of my friends. My mom thinks that if she gives me that information, they'll take the money from her SSI checks to pay for my college. After weeks of battling with her, I had to (temporarily) steal her mail just to fill out my forms.

2. Students are supposed to turn off their cell phones during class and even if they can keep the phone on vibrate, they really can't keep walking out of class just because a parent wants to talk.

3. Similarly, class attendance, homework, and tests aren't optional in college -- students can't just ditch their college obligations every time a parent wants help with something.

4. Being a college student doesn't make one rich and financial aid needs to be spent on school, not on things that the parent wants.
I think Ashley has hit on a key point. The very parents who most need an orientation/information are the ones least likely to either want or be able to go.
I went to a small private liberal arts college. They had a parents' orientation at which (I was informed by my parents) they did some anti-helicopter measures which included some advice on transitioning to empty nest. Your parents aren't necessarily empty nesting, but they are dealing with a life transition all the same as their children grow up.
My institution has a parents' orientation and has done so for the past few years. It was started after parents began coming to the students' orientation and dominating the proceedings to the point where the actual students couldn't get the information they were there for.

It's voluntary but it's always very well attended, and the information is also posted on the institution's website for reference and for the parents who can't attend.

In addition to covering information about the institution and its programs, it also has some anti-helicoptering measures (as described in the post above. What's been particularly important in this has been an introduction to privacy law, and alerting parents to the reality that paying their students' tuition does not give the parents the right to demand access to transcripts, grade records, etc. (at least not without the student's consent).
If you can't get a good job without a college degree, and one of the primary markers of adulthood is the ability to support oneself...

Well, there you are.
I don't understand how this post gets from orienting parents to decreasing student choices. I can't see the connection.

Paternalism always has the best of intentions, which is why I doubt that 'soft' paternalism would ever stay that way for long. Once you've decided you know better and the important thing is optimal 'outcomes,' there's nothing to stop you from doing anything helpful or useful, hard or soft, you can dream up.
We run a (voluntary) parent orientation concurrently with our new student orientation. The parents & students start and end the day together with a few joint sessions, but they split up for most of the day. Things that are covered in the parent segment include intro to campus resources, dorm tours, various financial & legal discussions, and "best practices" advice on how to support their students without smothering them.

In the meantime the students register for classes, get their own campus tour & intro to resources, etc. The day ends with a resource fair where many important campus services & offices are available to chat and answer questions with both students & parents. Seems to work out well.

Academic advising is also on hand at the end of the day for those parents who absolutely insist on restructuring "junior's" schedule - as often to dissuade the parent from pushing the point, as to make the changes. We find that this is where the parents often first experience the fact that their student will now be making autonomous decisions that they (parents) either disagree with or don't understand.
This is indeed a tough one. When I was 18 and decided I didn't like college anymore after the first semester, it would have been nice if my parents greeted the news that I was walking away from my scholarship with more than a shrug and a "we want you to be happy." You would think that with me being a first-generation college student, they'd be desperate for me to hang on, but the opposite was true. They hadn't gone to college and they were fine, so I didn't need it so much, right?

I think if they'd had some kind of context to understand what I was going through and that a lot of it was normal, they might have been able to encourage me to stay instead of enabling me to leave. But the whole world of college was mysterious - they had no vocabulary for it. I don't know if an orientation session could have done a damn bit of good, but certainly they should have been more involved in the process. Other than writing checks for application fees, they didn't even know what schools I was applying to. But knowing that "helicoptering" is such a problem, maybe I'm wrong. Indefinite adolescence isn't a good answer, either.

And it is really hard to find that happy medium on an institutional level when you have nearly infinite permutations of culture. We certainly run into this on the admissions side at my 4-year; yes, we do get calls from the nervous Type A parents wondering if we got Johnny's last 6 letters of recommendation yet, but we also get calls from parents who speak of their children as part of themselves, like it is a seamless thing. "We want to know why Steve did not get in given that his SAT scores are X." The whole family wants to know. The Type As are usually not shy about saying that MOM is wondering why Johnny was denied; chances are good that poor Johnny doesn't even know his mother is calling, while Steve is standing right there in the room as the call is happening. It's a substantial difference. How in the world do you cater to both?
Well this might be a good idea to help parents. Totally agree with Ashley's point above!
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