Parents Casting a Shadow Over College Applicants

July 10, 2004 | By Jay Mathews

Maggie and Nate Pancost searched for colleges pretty much on their own. They booked cross-country flights and made campus visits by themselves. Both eventually picked the University of Maryland at College Park, which was not at the top of their parents’ list.

When David and Karen Pancost of Silver Spring tell other parents about their hands-off approach, “they think we’re nuts,” David Pancost said.

They are, at the very least, swimming against a heavy tide. As the peak campus-visiting season gets underway, parents are becoming more active than ever in the admissions process, educators say, leading some colleges to look for ways to rein them in.

Admissions office staffers and high school guidance counselors say parental over-involvement comes in many forms. Some parents refuse to let their children apply to schools that don’t rank high enough on the U.S. News & World Report list of prominent colleges. Some rewrite application essays. Some intrude on even the simplest parts of the process.

“I am always shocked when a parent and student come in and I’ll ask the student their name, and the parent will literally jump in front of their child to answer for them,” said Georgia Summers, a Georgetown University senior working this summer at the school’s undergraduate admissions office. “I’ve even had parents fill out the basic info sheet on behalf of their child.”

College admissions deans say the new SAT and ACT essay question—which starts next spring and must be completed at a proctored testing center—will help them determine if a suspiciously well-written essay on an application is the student’s own work. And colleges make it relatively easy for students to transfer if they find their parent’s choice of school is not to their liking.

But what many colleges and students see as too much parental participation in college visits is still a problem. Summers said 80 percent of the questions on the campus tours she leads come from parents. She said she tries to break through to the actual applicants by addressing them personally whenever possible. A few colleges are experimenting with more assertive methods.

This August, officials at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, will again tell those attending its group information sessions that parents will be touring with one guide and students with another. This practice grew out of Bates Admissions Dean Wylie L. Mitchell’s observation that the teenage applicants “are intimidated by their parents and mostly humiliated by some of the parent questions.”

Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, is also splitting parents and students during tours. “Parents can ask any questions they like without worrying about what their son or daughter will think,” said Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions and financial aid, “and students can have a direct experience with the school without managing their parents’ reactions to it.”

Other colleges and universities are also looking for ways to free student visitors from what may be an oppressive parental presence, particularly when the students are returning for another visit during the crucial weeks in April when they have been accepted and are deciding where to go.

“I think students can go into a numb sort of feeling on campus visits, because they sit through lectures on financial aid and how to pay for college and they hear current students on student panels talk about how great the school is, but rarely do they get to sit down and just talk candidly with a student, free from the eyes and ears of their parents,” said Caroline Friedman, who graduated from Annandale High School in Fairfax County and will attend the University of Pittsburgh.

Joann Tseng, who graduated from Blake High School in Montgomery County and will attend Stanford University, said she thinks one reason she remained silent during campus tours was that she was subconsciously defying her parents, who “constantly nagged me to be more proactive about my educational future.”

Many parents say their own mothers and fathers were not much involved in their college searches. But these days, college has a higher priority—graduates have significantly higher incomes, on average—and tuition and living expenses are so high that parents want to make sure they are getting their money’s worth.

Larry Brown, parent of a high school student in Portland, Ore., said he thinks that parents’ questions on campus tours are important. “They can often detect holes in the narrative provided by the guide or ask questions they perceive as relevant to their family’s situation,” he said. “What is the harm in that?”

Some admissions deans cite authors Neil Howe and William Strauss, who in their 2000 book “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation” argue that parents and students in this era are more comfortable being partners in such activities than families were in the past.

Heather Boggs, a graduate student at DePaul University who has worked in college admissions more than five years, said she has noticed that students from low-income families with few relatives who have attended college often like bringing uncles, cousins and young children on campus tours to share in their new adventure.

But for some students, parental priorities simply don’t make sense.

“One mother I spoke to recently was upset that we do not have restricted visiting hours in our dorms,” said Summers, the Georgetown tour guide. “She said she was very concerned that her son would not get enough sleep in his freshman year. I told her that in my experience, chances are he probably won’t, but that’s all part of going to college, and he probably will not suffer long-lasting consequences.”

A few students have forestalled such awkward moments by banning their parents from the process altogether. Mara Jacobowitz of North Woodmere, N.Y., said her son PJ visited Indiana University with a high school friend, eventually enrolled and thereafter discouraged visits. “I swear,” she said, “I never set foot on Indiana University’s campus before graduation.”

Nate Pancost, 19, who took a year off before enrolling as a math major at U-Md. in the fall, said he liked his parents’ hands-off approach, compared with what he has seen among other Montgomery Blair High School families.

“Pushy does not even begin to describe some of the parents of my friends at school,” he said. “Ultimately I feel like it works against the kids, because once Mommy and Daddy aren’t there pushing, they stop working, and there goes a $40,000-a-year education.”

Maggie Pancost, 23, now an organic chemistry graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said some colleges were amazed to find her visiting on her own, but her parents had let her fly by herself since she was 5.

David Pancost, an English professor at Gallaudet University, said “anyone old enough to vote and get shot up in Iraq is old enough to choose his own college for his own reasons, even over Mom and Dad’s objections.”

Despite that, Maggie said, “I did have to do a small battle to go to Maryland,” because her parents preferred Haverford College or Bryn Mawr College, “but I won, and we all knew that I would.”

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