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Helicopter Parents in the College Planning Process

-by Thomas Hauck

You’ve seen the news reports and the discussions on the talk shows about a growing phenomenon: so-called “helicopter parents.” These are moms and dads who can’t seem to cut the apron strings when their son or daughter goes off to college. They hover over their child and get involved in every aspect of their child’s life. Helicoptering ranges from calling on the phone every day to coaching the child on his or her college application essay to even renting an apartment near the college campus.

Why do they do this? Experts say that many parents want the best for their child, but mistakenly seek to shield the child from any failure. And, unlike the old days when contacting your son or daughter at college meant calling the dorm rotary phone and hoping for a connection, students today can be tethered to their parents via cell phones, e-mail, and instant messaging.

When does conscientious parenting turn into overbearing suffocation? And how do students feel about it? Surprisingly, a recent national survey found that when it comes to planning for college, many students want their parents to be very involved.

StudentPOLL, published jointly in collaboration between the College Board and the Art & Science Group, found that most high school seniors are satisfied with the level of their parents’ involvement in their college planning process.

For most high school seniors, the process of researching and applying to college, not to mention actually attending college, can be stressful, and parental involvement is to be expected. The nationwide survey found that ninety-five percent of students indicated that their parents were either “very involved” or “involved” in making their college plans. No surprise there!

But, contrary to conventional wisdom, the students reported that their parents engaged in very little intrusive or overbearing behavior. In their search for the right college, sixty percent of students reported that they were happy with the level of parental involvement. Twenty-eight percent would like their parents to be more involved. Nearly thirty percent of students said they would welcome more, not less, parental involvement.

In the application process, only one percent of students reported that their parents wrote the student’s college application essays, and less than three percent stated that their parents filled out their son or daughter’s application forms. Only six percent of the students surveyed reported that they want their parents to be “less involved.”

Students Welcome Positive Involvement

What constructive roles can parents play? Students reported that their parents were most involved in developing their list of schools to be considered, planning and scheduling college interviews and visits, and considering college costs.

Sometimes parents can be pushy in a good way. Of the students whose parents were involved, nearly half said that their parents had insisted or encouraged them to apply to schools they had not otherwise considered.

Brad Quin, senior director of Higher Education Advocacy and Special Initiatives for the College Board, commented that it is important to remember the positive role that parents play in helping their kids make the transition to college. It’s a challenging time for families, and in the vast majority of cases, parents provide positive guidance and don’t try to exert control.

Richard Hesel, partner of Art & Science Group, added that college and secondary school administrators should view parental involvement as an opportunity rather than a threat. Proactive parents can be a very positive influence on the academic progress of their children.

Parents can rest easy knowing that during the college planning process, their guidance and assistance is necessary and welcome. Once their child sets foot on campus as a freshman, though, it may be better to give the telephone a rest.

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