Leveraging Parents as Allies in Student Success

by Daniel Fusch (Academic Impressions), interviewing Marjorie Savage (University of Minnesota)

While some colleges are seeking positive ways of managing parent involvement throughout the college years, others have established farewell rituals near the start of a student's first term to deliver the message that parents are expected to let go and step back. These separation programs range from

Not Just About Letting Go

Although introducing programming to encourage parents to "let go" may be a way to define the separation process for both students and student services staff, this approach (especially if adopted in isolation from a more holistic strategy for parent engagement) precludes opportunities to leverage parents as key resources in promoting the academic and social success of your students.

Marjorie Savage, researcher on the topic of parent/college relations and author of the books Not Helicopters but Allies: Partnering with Parents to Better Support Students (Academic Impressions, 2016) and You're on Your Own (But I'm Here if You Need Me) (Simon & Schuster, 2009), suggests that parents can be an asset to the institution and play a key role in student success -- if that role and the relationship between parent and college is clearly communicated and managed well. It's critical to find appropriate and meaningful ways to leverage parents as allies in improving the academic success of your students.

Set Specific Outcomes for Parent Involvement

Savage suggests setting specific outcomes that will guide your institution in managing communications with parents. Just as colleges and universities have defined student learning and development outcomes in recent years, identifying “parent outcomes” provides parents with an understanding of their role as a college parent, while also offering staff and faculty a foundation for consistent messaging among campus offices. Today’s college parents have been working with K-12 schools for years that have established specific tasks for parental involvement, ranging from regular communication  with teachers to checking their student’s homework and reading with their child. Families have an expectation, based on these years of involvement, that they still will continue to contribute to their student’s education. At the college level, however, parental involvement is obviously different and may be expressed as follows:

  • Understand the student experience and know about resources available at the university for their student and for themselves
  • Know and support the university's goals for student learning and development
  • Know when to step in to help their student and when to empower their student to take responsibility
  • Develop an affinity for the university

Helping parents understand when to step in, for example, may entail educating them about:

  • Limitations and processes for accessing student records (FERPA, HIPAA)
  • What signs to watch for that may indicate the student is under significant stress, is taking unhealthy risks, or is ill
  • Who they can contact on campus or in the community if the student's physical or mental health is endangered

Although many faculty and staff are concerned that today’s parents are overly engaged in their student’s life, there are situations where parents can support institutional messages and times when family members genuinely need to be involved. Parents know their students best. More than any official at your institution, family members are in a better position to identify early warning signs, provide encouragement for at-risk students, and offer meaningful support for freshmen navigating their first term. Parents can also help your institution deliver important messages concerning alcohol, safety, and academic planning. "Students need to hear these kinds of messages from multiple sources, and at the ‘critical times,’" Savage notes.

Parents at Orientation

Data from NODA (Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education) indicates that most colleges now provide orientation programming specifically for parents. These sessions, typically offered in conjunction with new student orientation, are designed to:

  • Give an introduction to what the first year will be like for the student
  • Inform parents about campus services and resources
  • Describe the relationship the institution wants to have with parents

To provide an orientation that meets parents' needs and lays the groundwork for productive engagement between the college and the parents, Savage suggests:

  • Address their questions around finances early in the program. Parents' top worry when they arrive for orientation is often “How will we pay for this? Our student has committed to come here, but can we afford it?” They need to know the answers to those questions early in an orientation program, so that they'll be open to hear the rest of what you are presenting.
  • Discuss with parents what "normal" development for a student over the four years at your institution looks like. For example, students may challenge family values and assert independence; by helping parents process what behaviors are to be expected and what type of family support may be constructive, a college can invite parents to become allies in student success while minimizing the risk of parental over-involvement.
  • When you address what the first-year experience will be like for the student, also address what it may be like for the parent and for siblings -- how will each be affected, and what can parents do to help make the student's transition a smooth one? What can parents do to make their own transition smoother? What are younger siblings going through as the college student prepares to leave home?

"Speak to parents about the opportunity to try new things in their own lives; on this crucial day, give them positive messages about transitioning as parents," Savage says. For example, you can offer a presentation or a recording in which several current students are asked, "What did your parents do differently when you left home?" At one orientation, students offered examples such as "My parents got a dog, and that's their baby now," “My mom got a new job,” or "Both my parents got motorcycles, and they take off every weekend on some adventure." It's likely that many of this generation's "super-involved" parents may not have thought through what the transition will mean for their own lives. Raising the question for them will help them see that they have a transition to make, too, even if they still have younger children at home.

"It's a more welcoming message than just 'Back off, go away,'" Savage remarks.

Learn More about Partnering with Parents throughout the Four Years

Marjorie Savage covers this topic in depth in her new book Not Helicopters but Allies: Partnering with Parents to Better Support Students.

This book will act as a guide for you to:

  • Identify missed opportunities with parents
  • Familiarize parents with campus resources
  • Educate parents on normative student development
  • Understand when parents should step in or step back
  • Build parents’ affinity for the college

If you’re new to parent programs, a primer at the end of Marjorie’s book also includes these complimentary resources:

  • A sample parent survey
  • Sample parent program outcomes
  • Steps for starting a parent program from scratch