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A University freshman talks things over with her mother

The trend of increased parental involvement began in the late 1990s.

PG-2006: Parental Guidance Accepted

Today's parents are much more involved with their college students

By Rick Moore

From M, winter 2006

On a lazy, gray mid-November afternoon, University of Minnesota senior Ali Schneider has her studying at Coffman Union interrupted with a question, "How often are you in contact with your parents?"

"Every day," she grins. "I just got off the phone with my mom."

Just around the corner, sophomore Janessa Dohse says she, too, has almost daily contact with her parents. "Usually if I go a day or two without talking to my parents, they'll e-mail me," Dohse says. "We talk about everything, like school or friends or what I do on the weekend."

Schneider says that her daily contact with her parents--her mom more than her dad--usually takes the form of phone calls, and that "If I don't call her by the end of the day, she usually calls me to find out how my day was." But, she adds, "I'm probably a bad person to talk to about this. I'm a little bit connected at the hip to my parents."

So much for striking out on one's own for the great unknown of college and "See you at Thanksgiving."

Far from being anomalies, Schneider and Dohse manifest a distinct trend. Today's parents, aided by efforts at the University and abetted by technology, are in much closer contact with their students than those of a generation--or even a decade--ago.

According to Marjorie Savage, director of the University's Parent Program and author of the book, You're on Your Own (But I'm Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years, the trend of increased parental involvement began in the late 1990s. Prior to that, the prevailing wisdom was that when a child left for college, a parent's obligation was to cut the strings of emotional support--to "let go." In the last decade, with today's "millennial" students, "that message has not gone over well," says Savage. "[Parents] want to see some steps along the way before they back off on that involvement level."

"They play a big role in motivating me or keeping me going when I make mistakes," Farah says. "My parents want to hear from me every day. If I don't call for like a whole weekend, my parents will call and say, 'Where are you; what happened?'"

There are other factors contributing to parental involvement. With the costs of a college education rising at stark rates nationwide, parents are increasingly expected to foot a significant share of the bill, giving them more of a vested interest in what's happening at school. "When they're investing in their student's education, they're going to watch out for their investment," Savage says.

Parents have also been taught to be involved in their children's lives, she says, and conversely, their children have been taught to talk to someone when something is amiss. Add to that an increasing sense that students truly value their parents' advice. "Just as the college experience is different than it was a generation ago, families are also different," Savage notes in her book. "The traditional belief that college students defy their parents' advice is outdated. Today's college students place great faith in their parents' opinions."

And technology has made it easier than ever to solicit those opinions. While not all parents and students are connected at the hip, they're easily connected at the ear thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones. In a 2004 parent survey, 79 percent of parents said their student has a cell phone. An issue or question that was once saved for a weekly long-distance call is now accomplished through a quick cell-phone connection at lunch or on the way home from a class--"anytime minutes" in the truest sense.

But lest you think all the conversations are profound--spiced with academic trauma or dating confessions--think again. Savage says she recently overheard the following one-way exchange between a student and parent: "Hi Mom. Just finished that quiz. It was okay. Talk to you later."

A model program for parents

Perhaps yet another reason for an increased involvement of parents in their U students' lives is the information they receive courtesy of the University. When Savage was hired at the U in 1993, part of her job was to start a newsletter for parents. University Parent began that year and continues to this day as a quarterly publication that's mailed to parents of full-time undergraduate students who have enrolled at the U within the last five years. It has a circulation of about 20,000.

That was just the beginning. Responding to requests from parents, Savage expanded the scope of the Parent Program significantly. Beyond the newsletter, the program now provides a number of communications vehicles, including e-mail messages, which are sent to parents about every two weeks with information about pending deadlines, campus news, and special notices; a question-and-answer service provided by Savage herself for phone or e-mail queries; and the University Parent Web site, which provides updated information in categories such as "News Updates," "Timely Issues," a "Question of the Month," and the "Fun and Interesting."

The Parent Program has also begun offering online workshops for parents. The first workshop [last winter] was on housing, and included segments from Housing and Residential Life, Student Legal Services, and an off-campus apartment manager. This fall a workshop was offered on mental health, and it received about 700 hits in the first two weeks.

Savage is currently offering on online course, "First-Year Seminar for Parents: Alcohol Use on Campus," aimed at helping to decrease high-risk drinking behaviors among students. While the course was originally intended for parents of freshmen, Savage decided to expand the scope to all parents.

All of these efforts have put the University at the forefront of parent communications. Savage won the national Susan E. Brown Award earlier this year "for outstanding contributions to programs and services for parents of college and university students." While retaining her modesty, she notes that the U does get "a lot of calls from other institutions asking for suggestions or advice."

Savage says she approaches parental involvement based on what's best for the development of the students, and the University Parent Web site even has a list of desired outcomes for parents. There are instances where parents cross the line and become too involved, she says, such as making a complaint that their student should handle, or wanting to initiate contact with a professor. "Parents do want to be involved, and there's a role for them," Savage says. "The key is to find the appropriate role for them."

As much as parental involvement has increased over the last decade, it's not universal or uniform. Parents of first-generation college students tend not to be as involved as other parents, and that puts the first-generation students at a significant disadvantage. Trying to level the ground for those students is "on my list of 'goals for next year' every year," Savage says.

Just checking in

Certainly, not all students need or crave daily contact with-let alone advice from-their parents. Ben Bradley, a freshman from Madison, Wisconsin, says he talks with his parents maybe once or twice a week and when he does, "They initiate it." He's also admittedly content with going back home "basically for holidays." "It's nice to have my space," he says. "I keep busy enough as it is that I don't need to be making phone calls all the time." Junior John Wang is in touch with his dad, who lives in Los Angeles, by phone about once a week--a frequency that hasn't changed much since he started at the U.

But for many others, contact with parents--be it for encouragement, advice, or just to check in--is a part of their daily life. Ronda Farah is a senior from Minot, North Dakota who is in touch with her parents daily, in part to clearly communicate about money matters, since she has access to the family's finances.

They also provide her with advice and encouragement. "They play a big role in motivating me or keeping me going when I make mistakes," Farah says. "My parents want to hear from me every day. If I don't call for like a whole weekend, my parents will call and say, 'Where are you; what happened?'"

"If I don't call [my mom] by the end of the day, she usually calls me to find out how my day was," adds the connected-at-the-hip Schneider. "She still checks up on me-'Are you going out tonight? With who?' [But] I'd rather somebody know where I am than not know."

"It's funny because I was never close to my mom until I came to school," she says. "And then it was, 'Hmmm, I miss my mom.'"