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?