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Handling ‘Helicopter Parents’

Handling ‘Helicopter Parents’

The days of parents dropping off their student on campus and waving good-bye are gone. Enter the world of the parent coordinator.

By Lydia Lum

On any given day at California Polytechnic State University, Nona Nickelsen fields phone calls from parents about their children’s tuition or dormitory meal plans. Nickelsen also might be lobbed a question like this one, posed by a worried mother: “My son’s classmates all have girlfriends and boyfriends. What can I do to help my son find someone?”

Welcome to the world of parent coordinators, who now work at about 70 percent of the nation’s four-year colleges and universities. Although their job titles vary from one campus to another, their duties typically include organizing campus events for annual parent weekends, producing regular newsletters and staffing telephone hotlines — some of them toll-free. The coordinators field questions ranging from financial aid and academic advising to homesickness and how to get a student to wake up in time for class.

“This is a whole new career field,” says Dr. Gwendolyn J. Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, which represents about 11,000 student affairs officials.

Once upon a time, parents would help their children move into dorm rooms and apartments, then wave good-bye for the semester. Not anymore. Baby boomers have arguably been more involved in their children’s educations — and their lives in general — than any preceding generation of parents, university observers say. And boomers see no reason why that hands-on approach should change just because their children have moved out of the house and onto campus. In fact, their hovering nature has earned baby boomers the nickname “helicopter parents” by coordinators. It’s a moniker some parents proudly claim as they deluge college offices with their questions. And in this era of instantaneous communication, helicopter parents expect detailed answers right away.

Parent programs and offices have been around for decades. Dungy says several dozen universities had coordinators in the 1970s. In the past decade, colleges have expanded many of these initiatives and redefined the job of the coordinator, she says. At many schools, officials are recognizing the wisdom of making the coordinator not only a full-time position, but also one with plenty of clout.

For instance, at the 27,000-student West Virginia University, parent advocate Susan Jennings Lantz reports directly to the president. Since stepping into the job in 1999, she has often attended cabinet-level meetings where she is the only one without a title of at least vice president. Lantz, who fields at least 3,000 parent calls annually, credits her background in teaching with helping her gain the trust of faculty as well as parents. On the college level, she has taught business writing, English composition and served as an academic adviser. She also has been a substitute teacher in public schools.

Such a background is common among Lantz’s counterparts. Dungy says parent coordinators typically hold academic degrees in disciplines such as liberal arts, management and psychology. About half of them earn more than $50,000 a year. Programs vary from campus to campus, but those at private schools are often housed under university advancement, while those at public institutions are often under student affairs.

While parent programs and coordinators grow increasingly common at four-year schools, they remain limited and in some instances nonexistent at historically Black and minority-serving institutions. However, Dungy expects that to change as the children of baby boomers continue to enroll in college. In fact, the tide will sweep into community colleges, too, she predicts. “Eventually, every school will figure out a way to do this.”

Meanwhile, officials at predominantly White institutions are making extra efforts to reach out to the parents of minorities, first-generation college students and other historically underserved populations. Brian Watkins, director of parent and family affairs at the University of Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park, says the 6,500 parents who receive his online monthly newsletter are as diverse as the students they send to the university. However, he says it’s unfair to assume all parents have regular access to a computer, especially if their jobs don’t require the use of one. So Watkins created a 32-page handbook that includes relevant phone numbers and answers to commonly asked questions. The handbook was distributed free of charge to everyone who attended a parent or new student orientation this past summer, he says.

At some colleges, parent coordinators have purposely sought out minority families. About five years ago, Syracuse University surveyed minorities living in campus dorms to find out why their parents weren’t interacting with the parents office or attending the annual parent weekend, says Colleen Bench, the office’s director since 1991. As it turned out, those parents were communicating with the university, only they were accustomed to going through the campus offices that had been instrumental in recruiting and retaining the students in the first place. So Bench began collaborating more with those offices, which gave parents the chance to learn about her office’s one-stop-shopping capability. Through the collaboration, Bench and her colleagues realized many financially strapped parents in New York City simply couldn’t afford to attend parent weekend. So now, the university foots the bill for the registration, housing and transportation of about 200 predominantly Black and Hispanic families.

Playing the Middleman
Parents’ quest for information sometimes runs into roadblocks they never encountered when their children were in high school, college officials say. Under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a college student’s education records — including their grades — cannot be released without that student’s signed permission. So when parents contact professors and college officials to find out how their children are doing in the classroom, coordinators must sometimes step in. Rather than providing the information, coordinators often tell the parents when grades will be posted and delicately suggest parents ask their children to disclose the results. Bureaucratic nuances such as this are resulting in parent coordinators spending much of their time “coaching parent constituents,” as WVU’s Lantz puts it.

Not surprisingly, that coaching can be a stressful experience, especially in times of crisis on campus. For example, when news got out that a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology was missing, parents began jamming the phone lines of Amy Lancaster, manager of the university’s parent program. Alongside their worry that the student was a victim of foul play, the parents demanded to know why Lancaster, who routinely e-mailed campus news to them, had never mentioned the missing student. Eventually, the student was discovered to have committed suicide.

“I understood it was an emotional situation that led to some knee-jerk reactions by the parents,” Lancaster says. “I tried to explain to them that while I would answer any and all of their questions individually, it didn’t seem like an appropriate item for an e-mail blast, and I wanted to respect the privacy of the family of the deceased student.” 

However, Lancaster and her peers are quick to point out that parent feedback often has brought about positive changes for their children. At Cal Poly, parent calls to campus officials and to the city of San Luis Obispo about unsafe buildings resulted in the city instituting a hotline for students living off campus. And at WVU, Lantz once sent a mass
e-mail to parents listing “how-tos” for the 4,000 students vacating dorm rooms at the end of the school year. Students were consistently unreliable when it came to cleaning their rooms and remembering to turn in their keys, complained housing officials. “Within 24 hours of my sending that e-mail, over 1,000 families had read it, compared to the 100 students who’d read the one that the housing staff had emailed,” Lantz says. “When it was time for students to move out, we had tons of parents here painting and cleaning, because they would have been the ones paying the tab if the rooms were left a mess.” 

There’s no sign from parents that their interest in their children’s college careers is waning. Recently, Nickelsen met a family visiting the Cal Poly campus to learn more about the admissions process. Their future student? “Only 11 years old and trying to get a running start,” she says.

And how did she handle that mother’s question about her son’s lack of a love life?

“I told her as gently as possible,” says Nickelsen, “that he needed to widen his circle of friends.”

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