Survey Offers a Snapshot of Hovering College Parents

College administrators grumble about the rise of “helicopter parents,” moms and dads who keep hovering over the lives of their children even after they leave for college. But helicopter parents aren’t just hovering. They’re swooping down in attack mode.

Nearly 40 percent of first-year college students have had a parent or guardian intervene on their behalf to solve a problem at college, according to new research being released Monday. About 13 percent of first-year students said such interventions were frequent.

“Forty years ago, going to college was a ‘breaking away’ experience,” said George Kuh, who directs the National Survey of Student Engagement, a massive annual study of college students that contains the new data.

That’s not the case any more, Kuh said. A big part of the reason is cell phones have long since replaced the pay phone down the hall in the dorm.

Educators insist there’s nothing wrong with parents taking an interest in college life. At Ohio State this year, a record 85 percent of the 6,100 freshmen brought a parent to orientation. Ten thousand parents subscribed to an e-mail list for updates from the school.

But the term “helicopter parents” has emerged to describe those who go overboard, getting too involved in solving their children’s problems, preventing them from learning self-reliance.

Largely, the trend has been tracked anecdotally in news stories about parents doing students’ laundry, editing their papers, and even calling the school to complain about roommates or grades. But there’s been little hard research.

This year’s NSSE, however, asked a new experimental set of questions on the topic. The questions went out only to about 9,000 students on 24 campuses, out of 320,000 students who participate in the full survey, which tracks all aspects of the college experience. The results offer the most comprehensive snapshot yet.

Among the findings:

About seven in 10 students said they communicated “very often” with a parent or guardian, with electronic means being the most common. The proportion was about the same for seniors and freshmen. “Very often” was not defined as a specific number of contacts.

Well-educated parents aren’t more likely to be helicopter parents. Poorly educated ones also intervene at about the same rate as others.

There’s an upside to intervening parents. Their children are more engaged in college life, happier and reporting getting more from the experience.

“We speculate maybe these students are persisting and taking advantage of a lot of opportunities in college, when they might not have done that if their parents weren’t prodding,” Kuh said. However, those students do get lower grades.

Barbara Hofer, a psychologist at Middlebury College in Vermont, said the results are similar to data she has gathered but not yet published on students at Middlebury and the University of Michigan.

She also found helicopter parenting transcends race, class and education (though she prefers the term “electronic tether” to “helicopter parents”).

Like the NSSE survey, Hofer has also discovered communication stays constant through college (about 13 times per week, by phone and electronically, for both freshmen and seniors), and that students who are more independent about academics had higher GPAs. However, it’s unclear whether that’s cause or effect: Does laissez-faire parenting produce smarter students, or do students who struggle academically draw in their parents for help?

Among the other findings from the new NSSE survey:

Ten percent of students say they never meet with their adviser, but 75 percent of freshmen rate their advising as good or excellent.

Students are spending the same amount of time studying as they reported in 2001, about 13-14 hours per week. That’s about half the time faculty say they should be studying.

Students who are the first generation in their family are much less likely than others to participate in learning experiences like study abroad or a faculty research project.

–Associated Press

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