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Purposefully Partnering with Parents

Tomorrow's Academy

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Barbara K. Hofer and Abigail Sullivan Moore, offering advice to parents seeking to find a balance between supporting and smothering their children, warned parents of a number of common mistakes: calling or otherwise contacting their children too often, only listening to their children\'s side of the story, taking on their children\'s role, fighting their children\'s battles, posing as their children online, and \"robbing kids of the ability to make decisions 



The posting below looks at ways to find an optimal balance between parental student support and over involvement in students' lives. It is from the excerpt Purposefully Partnering with Parents, by John Wesley Lowery, Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Chapter 10, What Should Universities Do About Overly Involved Parents? by Kari B. Taylor, Miami University, in the book, Contested Issues in Student Affairs: Diverse Perspectives and Respectful Dialogue, edited by Peter M. Magolda and Marcia B. Baxter Magolda. Published by Stylus Publishing. LLC. 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102 © 2011 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Purposefully Partnering With Parents  


For the first 325 years in the history of American higher education, college and university administrators understood themselves to be educationally acting in place of the parents, or in loco parentis. As Thelin noted, faculty and ultimately student affairs staff were surrogate parents responsible for the intellectual and moral growth of their charges, who were often much younger than the typical college student today[1]. In 1913 the Kentucky Supreme Court relied on colleges and universities' standing in loco parentis as the legal basis for granting broad power to discipline students, the same authority granted to parents, to side with Berea College in Gott v. Berea[2]. During this period, colleges and universities were not just working for parents-they were parents.


This essay examines the evolution of the role of parents in higher education, the parent-student relationship, and legal issues that shape how colleges and universities can work with parents. As Kari Taylor noted, parental involvement in students' lives is not always negative, but overinvolvement can stifle students' development in college. However, she primarily considers this from the perspective of an appropriate relationship between students and parents. This essay seeks to build upon her foundation and examine more meaningfully the institution's role.


This philosophy of in loco parentis is best understood as an educational and distinct legal philosophy. The leaders of the student personnel movement clearly retained aspects of this educational philosophy and recognized the value of forming partnerships with parents. In the 1949 Student Personnel Point of View, the authors wrote specifically about working with parents to address some problems students encountered even while acknowledging that parents themselves contributed to other problems through their continued \"domination\" of their students[3]. In 1959 Melvene Draheim Hardee wrote of the various efforts that colleges and universities were undertaking to foster parents' cooperation to enhance the support provided to students[4].


The demise of in loco parentis as a legal philosophy began in 1961 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education rejected this philosophy in higher education and concluded that the relationship between a public institution and students was constitutional, not parental[5]. The legal cases that followed in the 1960s reinforced this conclusion and placed limits on private institutions as well. In 1974 Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that further influenced partnerships between parents and institutions by placing limits on the information that universities could share with parents without students' consent[6]. While various exceptions allowed information to be shared with parents, FERPA also reinforced the larger message that the courts expected parents to sit on the sidelines when it came to relationships between colleges and students. Kari Taylor described the current nature of parental involvement in higher education, but it is also important to consider the historical context of this involvement.


Parents' and Students' Relationship


The relationship between parents and students has changed over the decades since the end of in loco parentis. As early as 1990 Cline and Fay described the phenomenon of helicopter parents[7]. However, it would be another 10 to 15 years before this term came into wide use in higher education to describe a new and common parental archetype. Over time these concerns about the overinvolvement parents have extended through students' college careers and into their job searches, as Bruno described, and postcollege employment, as Armour observed[8]. As Betsy Hart cautioned, \"Helicopter parents do their children no favors by not allowing them to exercise their wings a little before they have to fly on their own.\"[9] Interestingly these concerns about helicopter parents are not limited to the United States either, as Max Davidson illustrates similar concerns in Britain[10].


Today's college students-also known as the Millennial generation as described by Howe and Strauss-seem more highly receptive to this parental involvement than collegians during the previous four decades[11]. They contact their parents with what many administrators consider startling frequency. This increased parental involvement is not solely a result of parental desires but is coupled with technology (e.g., cell phones, video conferencing) that facilitates near constant contact with their children. Contemporary college students welcome their parents' involvement in their lives and their parents' willingness to assist them in resolving problems they encounter on campus or simply solving their problems for them. Howe and Strauss warned, \"Careful parental management will be one of the most-nerve wracking challenges of the Millennial college era.\"[12] However, some student affairs professionals argue that college students today are adults, and we should focus our efforts on the students themselves rather than on their parents.


Barbara K. Hofer and Abigail Sullivan Moore, offering advice to parents seeking to find a balance between supporting and smothering their children, warned parents of a number of common mistakes: calling or otherwise contacting their children too often, only listening to their children's side of the story, taking on their children's role, fighting their children's battles, posing as their children online, and \"robbing kids of the ability to make decisions.\"[13] The early response from student affairs professionals when helicopter parents begin to circle the campus is one of significant concern. As Taylor observed, we cannot immediately assume that every communication from parents is evidence of hovering. As Hofer and Moore rightly note, \"College administrators do appreciate parents who encourage their children to become independent and who respect what educators are trying to do: give students a good education and prepare them for life after college.\"[14]


Finding an Optimal Balance


Many student affairs professionals regard in loco parentis as a quaint relic of a bygone time without fully considering what role parents should play in higher education once higher education abandoned this concept. Henning argued that after several decades of floundering, a new model had effectively emerged-in consortio cum parentibus-or, in partnership with parents.[15] However, what does that partnership look like in practice? How can colleges and universities develop these partnerships?


As Karen Levine Coburn, coauthor of several editions of popular guides for parents of new college students, Letting Go: A Parents' Guide to Understanding the College Years, recommended, it is vital for colleges and universities to effectively educate parents about appropriate ways for them to support their students' development and success in college.[16] However, she warns that without careful planning and coordination, more parental hovering rather than less will be an unintended consequence. Institutions need a campuswide philosophy regarding parental involvement that reflects the messages universities transmit to parents during orientation. This philosophy must be present at all levels, particularly at the top of the institution. Without a message strongly communicated from upper reaches of the institution's administration, many parents will simply assume that if they go up high enough the answer will change. Absent a consistent message, parents will seize upon the perspective that resonates with them most. As Hofer and Moore observed, these overly involved parents are not intentionally setting out to limit their college-aged students' development but are doing what they believe is best.[17]


Like their parents, students need support from their colleges as they forge a new relationship with their parents. Colleges and universities can help parents and students set reasonable expectations for such considerations as the frequency and nature of communication. We can also help equip students to renegotiate this relationship with their parents. Just as we communicate with parents about appropriate relationships, we can assist students in this endeavor as well.


For this partnership between institutions of higher education, students, and parents to work effectively and support student development, institutions and parents must give students the opportunities to make decisions for themselves.


There is another dynamic to the partnership between parents and colleges and universities that must be considered: federal and state laws. FERPA limits the release of information from students' education records without their consent, but there are also multiple exceptions that allow the release of information to parents in a wide variety of situations.[18] These exceptions include releasing information to parents who claim their students as dependents on their tax returns, notifying parents for alcohol and drug violations, and releasing information in health and safety emergency situations. However, federal law does not require colleges and universities to share this information with parents but simply allows its release without violating FERPA.[19] Parents today, it seems, are more knowledgeable than ever before about FERPA and other privacy laws and are quick to correct administrators who mistakenly tell them

that federal law prohibits the release of information. Institutions must establish policies and practices that take advantage of this flexibility when desired. There are additional protections regarding students' counseling and health records that prevent the release of these records to parents except in very narrow circumstances. These health-related records typically cannot be shared with parents except in cases of significant, imminent threat.


Kari Taylor built upon Marcia Baxter Magolda's metaphor of the tandem bicycle to suggest that the parents and administrators should move to the backseat and allow students to take the front seat. However, federal and state laws limit the degree to which these backseat passengers can talk specifically about the student. A more productive, and FERPA-appropriate conversation in most cases focuses on students in general rather than on the specific student.


Beyond simply limiting student independence, parental involvement at times runs completely counter to the institution's goals. As institutions implemented policies for parental notification for alcohol violations, many administrators had conversations with parents who considered their underage students' decisions to drink as appropriate and normal. Administrators must be attentive to multiple potential issues related to parental involvement.


For this partnership between institutions of higher education, students, and parents to work effectively and support student development, institutions and parents must give students the opportunities to make decisions for themselves. The most important way parents and institutions can support students is helping them develop the skills to answer these questions from multiple perspectives and, as Kari Taylor noted, help students realize what these questions are. As with institutions of higher education themselves, there will be multiple approaches to managing this relationship. Regardless of approach, the key is for colleges and universities to address the problem directly and seek to develop mission-appropriate responses.




1. Thelin, J. R. (2004). A history of American higher education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


2. Gott v. Berea College, 156 Ky. 376, 161 S.W. 204 (1913).


3. American Council on Education. (1949). The student personnel point of view. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from


4. Hardee, M. D. (1959). The faculty in college counseling. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


5. Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education, 294 F.2d 150 (5th Cir. 1961).


6. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C §1232g (1974).


7. Cline, F. W., & Fay, Jim (1990). Parenting with love and logic: Teaching children responsibility. Colorado Springs, CO: Pinon Press.


8. Bruno, D. (2008, June 17). Parents, quit the hovering; It's graduation season, and all our 24/7 helicopter parenting has come to fruition, right? Wrong. Many of our kids still have no idea what they want to do, and it's all the parents' fault. USA Today, p. 9A; Armour, S. (2007, April 24). More parents hover when kids job hunt: Some employers admit \"it hurts\" how junior's perceived. USA Today, p. 1B.


9. Hart, B. (2006, November 19). Helicopter parents' need to land, walk off. Desert News (Salt Lake City, UT). Retrieved from


10. Davidson, M. (2008, March 22). Stop hovering! Just let him go. Daily Telegraph (London, UK), p. 11.


11. Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York, NY: Vintage Books.


12. Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2003). Millennials go to college. Alexandria, VA: AACRO & LifeCourse Associates, p. 81.


13. Hofer, B. K., & Moore, A. S. (2010). The iConnected parent: Staying close to your kids in college (and beyond) while letting them grow up. New York, NY: Free Press, p. 69.


14. Ibid., p. 72.


15. Henning, G. (2007). Is \"in consortio cum parentibus\" the new \"in loco parentis?\" NASPA Journal, 44, 538-560.


16. Coburn, K. L (2006, July-August). Organizing a ground crew for today's helicopter parents. About Campus, 11, 9-16.


17. Hofer & Moore, The iConnected parent.


18. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. §1232g (1974).


19. Lowery, J. W. (2005). Legal issues regarding partnering with parents: Misunderstood federal laws and potential sources of institutional liability. In K. Keppler, R. H. Mullendore, & A. Carey (Eds.), Partnering with the patents of today's college students (pp. 43-51). Washington, DC: NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.