Why today's parents require better college orientations

It's mid-September, and across the country, the parents of several million new college students have recently driven away from a college campus after dropping off a son or daughter. Most of them, one hopes, are at least reasonably satisfied that the institution will challenge their child and deliver an appropriate level of care and support when needed.

Yet have these same parents been informed of and had a chance to ask questions about the most serious issues their child will immediately face in adjusting to college?

If they have, it will be because they attended parents' orientation.

Experienced observers on American campuses have begun to notice a new group of mothers and fathers emerging over the past two years. Informally they're being called "helicopter parents" because of the way they hover over their offspring well beyond the standard moment to say goodbye.

In fact, one Boston-area dean of students describes them as the carefully dressed couple who sit in the front row at the first parent orientation session, who hold the dean's hand in any reception line through at least three separate questions, and who then sit in the back row at the first student orientation session.

On one occasion, a couple informed this dean - when they finally did exit - that they had purchased a condominium "in the neighborhood" to be able to monitor their daughter's progress more effectively. Clearly, with parents like these hovering close at hand, colleges and universities should consider themselves warned that life both on and off campus is not what it used to be.

Why are these issues even being raised this fall? Because parents have officially stepped forward as higher education's newest constituency. Effective parent-orientation programs - increasingly complex and comprehensive - are the first and most public steps in acknowledging the importance of their interests. In fact, mothers and fathers are arriving on campus with more serious questions than ever before about the cost of higher education, and what their child's school of choice is doing to earn their dollars.

Among high-profile institutions nationally, few have taken as dramatic steps as has Northeastern University in Boston. Over the past five years, to enhance its image, Northeastern has gone against the grain and boldly recast itself, focusing on national prominence over bulk.

In the mid-1980s, it registered over 30,000 full- and part-time undergraduates; last year, the university enrolled a more selectively chosen 18,000 undergraduates. Along the way, however, many parents have had many questions about life on and off this prominent urban campus.

Acutely aware of this, and of its growing responsibilities to its neighbors and the external community, Northeastern has strategically enhanced its parent orientation programs as a way to build friends and refine its new image.

According to Caro Mercado, director of the Office of Parent Programs and Services, Northeastern pointedly focused its orientations for parents and students on the importance of being "good citizens and good neighbors" simultaneously. With orientation sessions that feature videotapes of campus neighbors talking about the school, with a much more deliberate system of alerting parents to the major events coming to the city over the course of the year, and with an official Parents Association that publishes its own newsletter and handbook, Northeastern tangibly makes the kinds of extra effort that parents have come to believe should be included in the cost of their family's higher education.

And yet as competing colleges and universities in every sector of the country now furiously launch new parents' pages on their websites and publish their first parent newsletters, a new tension has emerged on those same campuses: Whose first-year experience is it, anyway?

The most enlightened universities recognize the need to establish a relationship with each student that respects privacy, encourages independence, and facilitates the transition to adulthood. Although it may not be immediately apparent, the expectation that these skills will be delivered is precisely what parents have purchased in their child's choice of an undergraduate degree program. Blindly continuing the same patterns of involvement that worked when their child was in high school is not the answer.

Entering students this fall are, in many instances, the offspring of undergraduates of the 1960s and 1970s, and, aside from a few more pounds and a bit less hair, those parents still retain the same attitudes toward higher education they held when they walked across the podiums at their own commencements.

Questioning authority, demanding relevance, and increasingly expecting value, the parents of the class of 2008 are ready for their own exciting, engaging, high-quality orientations, and the nation's campuses had best prepare serious welcomes for these new "students."

James Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass. James E. Samels is president of The Education Alliance, a consulting firm based in Framingham, Mass.

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