Coming in for a landing: Helicopter parents and the admissions process
You can almost guarantee that bringing up this term among a group of college admissions officers will bring you a fair share of eye rolls and horror stories. Before transitioning into the field of enrollment management, I worked in the field of student affairs. My career focus was on developing the mind, body and souls of eager college students. As you can imagine, our field was becoming increasingly concerned about the emergence of parents who were so ensconced in their parental roles that they were supplanting their students place in the developmental experience of college. Calling professors to argue about grades, showing up on campus to wash their students’ clothes, stepping in at any sign of discomfort or distress in a way that was seriously hampering our ability to develop college students into independent and able people. As I began my transition into my role as an admissions counselor, veteran professionals began to prepare me for dealing with the notorious helicopter parents that would I would surely encounter. However, after almost a year in my position my negative feelings and judgments towards parents during the admissions process have all but dissipated. In its place is a growing sense of compassion, endearment and respect for the role that parents and families can play in this process.
Long heralded as the villains, helicopter parents are, more often than not, an admissions officer’s best friend. Unlike the college years when a student is transitioning into an adult with adult expectations and responsibilities, the admissions process occurs at a time when a student is on the cusp of adulthood but still in the midst of adolescence. Additionally, parents play a much more central role in this process because 1. They can sometimes know their students better than they know themselves 2. They tend to lead the charge with both their organization and funding of trips to visit colleges and 3. As college costs rise, deciding where to go often becomes a family decision. I’ve found that high school students are very able and many are focused enough to make an informed decision about what college they want to attend but most students are lost, anxious and confused and eager for guidance that needs to come from someone other than the admissions counselor they met for 10 minutes at a college fair.
I admit that when I answer the phone or open an email and notice it’s from a parent I cringe a little. I can’t help but wonder what the student is thinking and how , if at all, the parent is supporting this student to be more involved in their college search process. But after engaging with parents I come away understanding that parents and families have just as many concerns as prospective students. They are trying to find a place in a process that ends with them taking on a very different role in their child’s life then they one they have assumed for the past 18 years. Sometimes the anxiety they unknowingly give to their child is an expression of their own desire to find a place for their student that will provide them the security and foundation for success that they have been responsible for.
It’s obvious to me that parents feel somewhat guilty or ashamed of inserting themselves into their child’s college selection process. As they awkwardly try to push their child to ask more questions, or pretend to be their child over the phone or through email I have wondered about more productive and helpful ways admissions offices can find a place for parents and families to ask their questions and ease their anxieties. Creating a “space” for parents and families in the admissions process helps admissions offices, parents and students who desperately want their dad to stop asking questions about “frat” parties during an information session. Research on helicopter parents has shown that they tend to be highly educated meaning this isn’t their first rodeo. In the back of their mind is the college experience (the good and the bad) and they have more nuanced questions that student may not know to ask.
Through the power of google, I found a few colleges who seem to be providing the right kind of space for parents and families to be involved in the college admissions process:
University of Virginia: http://www.admission.virginia.edu/parents
I like the way UVA outlines information for parents in an accessible way. Nothing is more frustrating than having a question and trying to navigate some schools labyrinth like website to locate it. I often get questions from parents about how their students will be advised and what activities they will be able to participate in. UVA presents that information clearly and in one location.
University of Iowa: http://admissions.uiowa.edu/parents-family
Iowa has a great resource on their Parent and Family section called “Why Iowa.” This whole process is about helping students find the best fit and this resource is given from a parent’s perspective. It outlines all those fun facts parents like to know like outcomes and graduating on time and it does it in one location.
University of Kansas: http://admissions.ku.edu/parents
What KU does right is let parents know that they are an important piece of the process: You’re the expert. They also touch on the issues that are most important for parents and families – price, safety, academic quality and outcomes.
According to the laws of biology, parents, families and prospective students are a packaged deal. How is your institution communicating with them and making creating a safe landing spot for the ever circling “helicopter parents.”