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Colleges ward off meddling parents

Sue Shellenbarger The Wall Street Journal

As colleges and universities gear up to receive a new class of freshmen this fall, they’re bracing for a potentially more daunting onslaught:

Helicopter parents are going to college.

A new generation of overinvolved parents are flooding campus orientations, meddling in registration and interfering with students’ dealings with professors, administrators and roommates, school officials say.

Some of these hovering parents, whose numbers have been rising for several years, are unwittingly undermining their children’s chances of success, campus administrators say. Now, universities and colleges are moving rapidly to build or expand programs aimed at helping parents strike a better balance.

A number of colleges and universities are having to assign full-time staffers or forming entire new departments to field parents’ calls and e-mail. Others hold separate orientations for parents, partly to keep them occupied and away from student sessions.

The University of Vermont employs “parent bouncers,” students trained to divert moms and dads who try to attend registration and explain diplomatically that they’re not invited. At one parent-student orientation session in June, more parents than students attended, swamping the meeting hall, said Jill Hoppenjans, the university’s assistant director of orientation.

At the University of Georgia, students who get frustrated or confused during registration have been known to interrupt their advisers to whip out a cell phone, speed-dial their parents and hand the phone to the adviser, saying, “Here, talk to my mom,” says Richard Mullendore, a University of Georgia professor and former vice president, student affairs, at the universities of Georgia and Mississippi. The cell phone, he says, has become “the world’s longest umbilical cord.”

Rachel Rosalez acknowledges she is part of the problem. She chose the Texas university her daughter will attend this fall, successfully lobbied administrators for a particular roommate, helped pick her daughter’s courses and bought her books. Rosalez has also been e-mailing administrators on a range of topics for months. She admits she’s “much too involved.” But she’s too anxious about seeing her daughter leave home to let go, she said.

Her daughter, Roni, says she’s close to her mother and grateful for her support. Enrolling in college is so complex, she says, that “I do need her” to help out.

Mother Rosalez and others like her are part of a cultural shift toward more involved parenting — which many of today’s students welcome. There are some good reasons for it. The trend reflects societal fears about campus safety, amid growing media coverage of campus murders and deaths, mounting mental-health problems, and rising alcohol and drug arrests at colleges and universities.

Soaring college tuitions play a role, too. Increasingly, “parents see the institution as a product, and they’re consumers. They want to know their investment is being protected,” Dr. Mullendore says.

Reflecting a growing activism, college parents acquired their own lobbying organization last year, the 7,000-member College Parents of America, Arlington, Va., which advocates for tax breaks, grants and loans to help parents.

Of course it’s important for parents to know campus counseling, tutoring and medical resources, so they can refer students to the right source of help when they need it. And parents should maintain listening skills.

When Mary Anna Thornton’s son got pneumonia as a college freshman, she could tell by the way he was breathing during a phone call that he needed medical help. She pressed him to go to the college infirmary. The staff there sent him to a hospital for testing, but he wound up back in his dorm room afterward, seriously ill and alone. Thornton picked him up and took care of him for a couple of days.

“That’s the kind of situation that makes you feel like you should be overinvolved,” says the Land O’Lakes, Wis., mother.

The trick is to distinguish between when you’re truly needed, and when you need to push a kid out of the nest. Campus officials say they’re seeing a growing number of freshmen lacking basic skills — negotiating for what they need, getting along with others in a shared space, using common sense to stay safe, and solving their own problems.

Administrators prefer that students pick their own majors and courses. At California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Calif., last week, a mother showed up – without her son – to register him for classes and meet with his academic adviser, says Andrene Kaiwi-Lenting, the university’s orientation director. She intercepted the mother and urged her to leave and let her son come alone later; “there’s going to be a time when he needs to do this on his own,” she says she told the mother. But the woman said her son was traveling and refused to be dissuaded.

Other universities report having to teach kids basic safety skills, such as not propping open their dormitory doors at night. Even in class, professors “can’t assume that students coming into the classroom know they already should have bought their books,” says Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. “All the decisions have been made for these young people.”

Some colleges are training parents how to let go. Maryville College, Maryville, Tenn., stages skits with student actors, showing how parents can coach students to solve problems, rather than taking over.

“We want parents to think about these situations in advance,” says Bill Seymour, vice president, administrative services, “so they can handle them when they come up.”

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