Off to college—for parent and child;
These parents hover, stay involved. They want it that way. So do the children.

January 24, 2004 | By Lini S. Kadaba

When Ryan Haney, a college man at West Virginia University, didn’t click with his adviser, he looked homeward to his mother and father in Mercerville, 300 miles away.

Kathleen Haney intervened, dialing the Morgantown school’s toll-free Parents Club Helpline, with its full-time parent advocate. Ryan, 19, got his new adviser—thanks to his mother in New Jersey.

“They need all the help they can get,” she said. “They’re not grown up. They think they are. But they’re not worldly wise.”

Enough parents unabashedly agree that a growing number of colleges and universities are adding services to keep the folks involved in the campus life of their children, services such as help lines, weekly e-mail updates, and Web sites with class schedules and course syllabi.

Since 1999, schools with parent programs have multiplied from a dozen or so to 300, according to Jim Boyle, president of College Parents of America, an Arlington, Va.-based advocacy group founded in 1998 with about 1,030 members, including 62 schools.

No longer, it would seem, does leaving home for the Big U necessarily mark the start of independence from parents.

“Helicopter parents” is the sobriquet used by administrators for the mothers and fathers who hover over their children.

The students, the leading edge of the so-called millennials born in 1982 or later, do not seem to mind, even as some experts wonder how they will learn to handle their problems.

“I’m not advocating leaving them at the college steps, as my parents did,” said Linda Bips, an assistant professor of psychology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown who has written, with her daughters, the book Parenting College Freshmen: Consulting for Adulthood. “I’m really concerned about overinvolvement.”

This is the generation that put “Baby on Board” signs on the back of the minivan. Boomers have managed their children’s lives every step of the way, beginning with mommy-and-me tumbling classes, moving onto sideline cheering for karate, soccer, piano and elite travel teams.

“When they take them off to college, they’re not going to wave good-bye and say, ‘See you in four years,’” Boyle said.

Never mind that boomers marched to an anti-establishment beat during their college years, chafing under an in loco parentis doctrine.

Besides generational shifts, tuition bills the size of the national debt are stoking the parental fire to stay involved. “If you’re spending $25,000 [a year] on an education,” Boyle said, “you want to be able to call and get an answer.”

At West Virginia, Susan Jennings Lantz, the parent advocate since 1996, now takes 4,000 calls a year. She has heard it all, from the mundane - where do you pay tuition?—to concerns over sexually active daughters, depressed students, grades, roommates. One child-sick parent confided that “I miss my son and he doesn’t seem to miss me.”

She reassured: “He does. He just shows it differently.”

Lantz also sends out an electronic newsletter to 7,000 parents with important dates, activities and requests to nudge students about deadlines.

Way different from her college days at West Virginia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when parents “waved happily and off you went. Strange thing—students want them involved.”

Millennials like Ryan Haney credit their parents with “always having answers for questions.”

William Strauss, who cowrote the book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, is not surprised: “Never in the history of polling have teenagers and collegians gotten along with their parents better. Millennials care what their parents think.”

Many regularly call and e-mail home—often for money; some things never change—but also for counsel.

More schools, especially private ones, are taking note.

Parent list servers are increasingly popular, with Seton Hall University, Duke University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology among those that recently started electronic missives.

At Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J., the e-newsletter offers the usual reminders as well as parenting advice. In the fall, the school revived its family weekend to “further engage” the home front, said Natalie Thigpen, who coordinates parent association activities.

Many are asking for advisory boards to influence school policies. Started in 2002, the 10-member Parent Council at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., has made recommendations on cafeteria fare and transportation.

Other schools are offering parents more online access to student records. At Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., students can allow parents to see financial statements and grades.

“I check in just about every day,” said Joanne Kratz, 44, of Telford, who uses the parent portal to keep tabs on her freshman daughter Elaine, checking out dorm pictures, swim-meet results, class schedules—and grades.

“It gives me instant gratification,” she said. “I don’t have to wait for her to call.”

Said Elaine: “I think it’s really good that when I call home it doesn’t have to be all how I’m doing in this class. We can talk about other stuff.”

If parent programs slow the rush toward independence to an amble, so be it, school administrators said. The students will grow up, eventually.

Occasionally, though, matters can go overboard, said Peter Gustafson, vice president of student affairs at Rose-Hulman, who had to be diplomatic when a parent wanted the school to provide wake-up calls for a student.

Schools are loath to complain about helicopter parents, who often are footing the bills.

The term for hovering types is popular with the admissions dean at Northeastern University, said Caro Mercado, director of new student orientation and parent programs at the Boston school, which also is a national clearinghouse on such services.

It is far from a criticism. “Parents are demanding access,” she said. “They have an investment in college. Parents want to have a voice…they want to ensure a payoff.”

And they want increased access to course syllabi and professors—an idea the school is weighing, Mercado said.

Bips, of Muhlenberg, wonders what’s next. Parents sitting in the same classroom as their children?

“This is the soccer moms and baseball dads who continue to make the child’s experience the center of their lives,” she said. “When you’re 40, 50 years old, you should have other centers.”

She encourages parents to serve as “consultants,” letting the student take the initiative.

Kathleen Haney, 46, is trying to navigate that fine line.

This year, she and her husband, Peter, 45, volunteered to head the South Jersey chapter of the Mountaineers Parents Club, offering them more chances to visit Ryan’s home away from home.

“I have an only child, and he’s our whole life,” she said. “We’ll always be overprotective.”

Still, when Ryan didn’t know the location of a campus building and called home to ask, she gently drew the line, suggesting he look up the information on the school Web site.

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