Why Parents Help Their College Students

At Saturday’s luncheon to celebrate my niece’s Confirmation, my brother-in-law discussed a recent business trip to check out a building in Florida that had been designed by his firm. “Boy, do they do shoddy construction work in Florida,” he said.

“How can you tell that the construction is bad”, I asked. “Don’t you have to look behind the sheet rock to really know if the building is badly built?”

“Nah, I can just walk through the building and see all the problems.”

My brother in law has been an architect at one of the top companies in the world for nearly 35 years. Something like a misaligned electrical socket, which would totally slip by me, speaks volumes to him.

I was a student, a researcher, and a professor in higher ed for 25 years. My husband, my father, and nearly all of my friends are or were in the business for years. I, too, can spot shoddy work a mile away; instead of misaligned electrical sockets, I see adjuncts.

In my last post, commenter “scantee” speculates that UMC parents help out their college-aged children because of economic panic. That is very much true. There are a host of other reasons, too, including better technology. I wrote an article about parent involvement in college for The Atlantic a couple of years ago. Another reason that I didn’t write about in that article and didn’t realize until I sent my kid away to college is that college ain’t what it used to be.

I send my kid to one of those massive, 30,000 undergraduate public colleges. The college is ranked very highly, and it’s nearly 1/3 of the price of the similarly ranked private schools. All good things. But the way that the school keeps that price low is by skimping on workers.

My kid is finishing off his second year of college. He’s had almost no classes yet where he’s had a tenured or tenured track professor who is able to remember the students’ names. Most of his classes have been in large lecture halls with hundreds of students with a big name in the front of the room. The discussion sections are led by rotating grad students and adjuncts who are intellectually and financially insecure. A few of his classes have been small classes led by adjuncts. One was so bad that she was fired in the middle of the semester. Two of his classes have been hybrids, meaning that they mostly happen online.

Most of the classes have been very academically rigorous. I have no complaints with the material that he’s been covered in his classes. Expectations for the students are very high. The problem is mostly the lack of connections between teachers and students. No chit-chat in the hallway about books or the weather. No role models. I hear that those connections happen in one’s senior year when the students take seminars, but that’s a long way away.

Administration is even worse. The first semester, he went to academic advisement to help him register for classes. They put him in the wrong Physics class, so that first week, he had to scramble to add/drop a class and return books.

They’ve set up such a complicated system for gen ed requirements that going to advisement is almost mandatory. So, the next time he needed help with knowing which classes would satisfy the gen ed requirements, I drove down to the school to see what was what. I let him lead the meeting, but I wanted to be there to make sure he asked the right questions and to make sure that mistakes didn’t happen again.

Ugh. The woman was adept at telling my kid which class satisfied which requirements, but she couldn’t go beyond that. Jonah said he was interested in combining his interests in science and politics. What did she suggest? She couldn’t tell him the difference between the majors of public policy, political science, and environmental policy. She told him to talk with three separate advisors in those three different departments in three separate schools within the college.

Setting up times to talk with those advisors was also a hassle, because they were each located on different campuses there. (There are five campuses at his school, which can only be reached with a twenty minute bus ride.) And then each needed an appointment. It could take two weeks for Jonah to get the answer to his very simple question about majors, so I called a buddy in the policy department at his school, and she told me what was what.

I’ve decided that his school has shoddy construction, but we like the price. So, I step in when needed to handle the problems with instruction and advisement. And it’s not only my kid who has had problems. I occasionally am put on the cellphone to answer pol sci questions from his friends and housemates. Only about half of boys at his school graduate in four years. It takes a long time to navigate that system.

Well, this blog post is long enough and I want to get to the gym. More tomorrow.

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45 thoughts on “Why Parents Help Their College Students

  1. This is a very timely post for me.

    Our oldest is a high school junior and I’ve been studying the suggested course flow charts for some different majors that C might want to combine and I was reaching similar conclusions about the need for one of us parents (I nominate C’s dad, because he has STEM degrees) to go to her advising (with hopefully C taking the lead but husband listening and making sure no nuances were missed). I was feeling like a helicopter mom stereotype, but there is a lot of time and money on the line, and I was finding the flow charts pretty intimidating, and I’ve already been to college…Also, as I was mentioning in the earlier thread, our junior is pretty timid around authority figures, and she may be afraid to ask for things/assume that the answer is no and there’s no point in asking. Lastly, like Laura’s son, our oldest may be combining two fields, so there’s not necessarily a canned answer available with regard to how to do it right.

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  2. I’ve probably told the story before about the time I was TAing a Russian class, and one of my students was a young woman who had been allowed to sign up for 3 or 4 different beginning language courses at the same time.

    The punchline of that story was that she was (as I recall) a chemistry major.

    That schedule made no sense at all from any point of view, and yet somebody signed off on it.

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  3. It is simply impossible to not be involved with your college aged kid. That was everyone told me when I did that last article. It’s possible to be TOO involved, but not being involved enough is also a huge problem. It’s important to find some middle ground.

    Also, administrators told me that they want parents to be involved. They purposely send them info about college offerings. They’ve cut back a lot on administrative costs, and they are relying on parents to fill that gap. Our experience was very typical.

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    1. It’s not impossible— but the students will pay a cost, since as you say, colleges are relying on parents providing backfill. It is gaslighting to just tell all parents to back off and allow their children to navigate without and learn resilience and recovery from failure.

      But, it’s unfair to the college, to hold them primarily responsible since the lack of resources and the consequences of failure (winner take all world) are also a big part of the changing landscape.

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      1. bj said,

        “It is gaslighting to just tell all parents to back off and allow their children to navigate without and learn resilience and recovery from failure.”

        That’s a good point.

        I also think that there’s a big difference between failing in a productive way and failing via pointless tail-chasing (like my student with the ridiculous course load).

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      2. Whether or not it’s gaslighting, I think depends on what type of school your kid goes to. I meet with each of my first-year advisees every week for and hour. Do they need their parents to hold their hands and make sure they pick the right classes? Probably not because that’s part of what my role is. And yeah, my parents were super involved in my college career and I wish they hadn’t been. I was a kid who didn’t like to ask for things from authority figures but someone should have forced me to do just that rather than do it for me. It took me a good chunk of my adult life to get over all that “help” my parents gave me.

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      3. bg said,

        “Whether or not it’s gaslighting, I think depends on what type of school your kid goes to. I meet with each of my first-year advisees every week for and hour. Do they need their parents to hold their hands and make sure they pick the right classes? Probably not because that’s part of what my role is.”

        It’s good that you are there and you see that as your role.

        “And yeah, my parents were super involved in my college career and I wish they hadn’t been. I was a kid who didn’t like to ask for things from authority figures but someone should have forced me to do just that rather than do it for me.”

        The risk is that the sort of kid that I’m thinking of is not going to ask the authority figure the favor/won’t believe that it’s possible.

        We’re still in the process of convincing our oldest that authority figures aren’t malevolent and scary and that they aren’t going to eat you if you ask for things.

        The last year or so, we’ve encountered a lot of situations where there is a stated rule that doesn’t make sense and our oldest’s instinctual response to that is to take it at face value, rather than talking to an authority figuring and asking “Do you really mean that?” or “What do you want me to do in XYZ situation?” Her reflex is just to accept injustice/unfairness/procedural stupidity rather than taking the risk of pressing for answers. And she doesn’t want me to do ask, either.

        I know that independence is the goal, but there are a lot of baby steps involved.

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    2. “It is simply impossible to not be involved with your college aged kid. ”

      I’m allowed to pay for tuition and rent and make sure financial aid forms are filled out. I am allowed to do nothing else. She does let me see things, like the main student account for her. She does go to her advisor at times and relies on the student grapevine.

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      1. I often find myself wondering if I’ve done the right thing or the wrong thing by raising a child so fiercely protective of her independence from me. I think (?) that maybe because she and I both have strong personalities, she realizes she needs to separate from me in order to grow. Well, something to discuss with the therapist tomorrow, I guess.

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      2. Wendy said,

        “I often find myself wondering if I’ve done the right thing or the wrong thing by raising a child so fiercely protective of her independence from me. I think (?) that maybe because she and I both have strong personalities, she realizes she needs to separate from me in order to grow. Well, something to discuss with the therapist tomorrow, I guess.”

        This is the opposite of the old Jewish joke:

        https://jewishtimes.com/52782/one-funny-jew-rabbi-telushkin-delivers-at-jnf-event/news/

        ““Three Jewish mothers were talking about their sons,” Telushkin quipped, “with one bragging, ‘My son, he loves me so much, he just bought me tickets for a cruise around the world!’ Another said, ‘That’s nothing. My son loves me so much he paid for a fully catered meal at a glorious dinner.’ The last chimed in cheerfully, ‘I have you both beat: My son pays a therapist $300 per hour … and all he talks about is me!’”

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    3. I also have a demandingly independent child who has always told me to back off and won’t take feedback even on things where I am undeniably an expert. If she were in a situation like Laura describes at Rutgers, where false steps can result in year long graduation delays, we could hope that she would figure it out, but we wouldn’t be able to step in to help her. If that turned out to have been necessary, we’d have to resign ourselves to paying for extra years (or send her to another school where the advocacy might not be as necessary, the choice that seems to be in the cards).

      That’s the point I’m making with the comment that it isn’t impossible. It’s just that there are consequences. In our case, the consequences aren’t not graduating, but, seeing the amount of support some of the other kids get (and that my child refuses), it could mean opportunities not attained.

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  4. Having gone to a tiny university, where all the freshman took 50% of their classes together, what you describe is both timely and not something I fully understand. My main question would be if things are really different now? And I am thinking about personal experience, not the stats.

    I do know that at our R1, they are now admitting 85% of CS majors through direct admit. In my winner take all complaint, that means brilliant 9th graders are focused on managing their GPAs , in the absence of any time for exploration.

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  5. bj said,

    “Having gone to a tiny university, where all the freshman took 50% of their classes together, what you describe is both timely and not something I fully understand. My main question would be if things are really different now? And I am thinking about personal experience, not the stats.”

    I went to University of Southern California in the early/mid-90s–it has a freshman class bigger than your college (if I’m remembering your school correctly). USC is a biggish school, but I didn’t ever feel like I fell through the cracks. I did a double major and the Thematic Option program (TO is an honors program that covers general requirements and has a couple hundred students):

    https://dornsife.usc.edu/thematic-option/

    I was also in their early entrance program (now defunct) and I believe my freshman housing was specific to those programs–so it did make it feel less big.

    I don’t recall having any problems with advising at USC, but the Russian department was pretty small and friendly, so we got a fair amount of TLC. There definitely weren’t any advising catastrophes. I was probably doing advising with Thematic Option, the Russian department, and the journalism department, which sounds like a lot now. But no 25 minute bus rides!

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  6. But haven’t big state U’s always been sort of sink or swim, with fairly high dropout/delayed completion rates? In contrast, fancy schools like the ones that Wendy and I and our children attend(ed) do a lot more hand holding, so the parents don’t need to.

    And there were lots of freshman year courses when I was at Yale which involved a big name lecturer lecturing to a hundred plus students and discussion sections led by grad student TAs. The TAs may be a little higher quality at Yale than Rutgers (or not, actually), but it’s not an uncommon setup.

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  7. My advisees (SLAC-like for undergrads, small professional grad population) meet with me at least once a semester individually, but also have two meetings with the department chair during the semester to answer questions and highlight aspects of the major. I also see them all the time in my small classes. And we have suggested course schedules for all 4 years of the degree easily available. My students don’t mention planning courses with their parents, and I would never expect one to show up to help out. I was more independent than my students at a seven sisters school (less advisor contact). I’ve been at one other SLAC with similar levels of advisor contact and almost non-existant parent contact. I sure as heck hope I don’t have to do the kind of handholding that you report when it comes time for my kids to go to college; I suppose if they end up at one of the big SUNYs they might need some but I really hope not to the level of my feeling like sitting in on their advising appointment is the only way to go.

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    1. I also don’t know who is doing the general advising, but I don’t disagree that getting info from individual departments is the wrong advice. It is extremely hard to keep up with changes and intersections even as a faculty member IN a department; if the advising folks are admin they probably barely know what the real meat of all the majors are and are just following guidelines (this is true even at my small school). I do know that students expect me to know what art course or polisci course to take and I just don’t know those things – I can gather info ad hoc, but I can’t possibly advise about another major as well as someone in that department.

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  8. At my small SLAC we spend hours advising students. I recently helped a history major cut a semester off his college career, but I have noticed that students often aren’t prepared and expect me to pick every class for them. Occasionally, parents are involved but half the time students will go through with what their parents want and when the parents are gone they will drop those classes or major and do what they want (recently had a business major switch it for psychology)

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    1. Anonymous said,

      “At my small SLAC we spend hours advising students. I recently helped a history major cut a semester off his college career, but I have noticed that students often aren’t prepared and expect me to pick every class for them.”

      Is there a big difference in who does advising in different institutions? I’ve been getting that vibe.

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  9. Advisement at Jonah’s school is different from most schools. Most colleges have faculty providing students with help signing up for gen ed classes and fulfilling major requirements. At Jonah’s school, they have a huge bureaucracy that does that. That’s their only job. They aren’t PhDs or faculty. If advisement is a person’s sole job function, then I do think they should know better than to put a first semester freshman in an advanced science class with prerequisites, to give them tips about creating a balanced schedule, and to know the differences between the various majors at their school. I mean I figured out answers with a five minute phone call. That bureaucrat could have done that, too.

    I don’t care what my kid majors in, and he knows that. I’ve said anything, but Puppetry.

    Advisement is such a problem at his school that it came up as an issue when we doing campus tours. The tour guide mentioned it.

    I went down to school, not just as a parent. Because I’m more than that. I went down as a peer and as a reporter. I wanted to see if the system was really as useless as Jonah described,

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  10. I went to a public college in the 1980s. It was about 10,000 undergraduates, almost no grad students. My parents weren’t involve at all in my education and hadn’t really been involved since 10th grade. I probably did call my dad and ask him some questions from time to time.

    I knew all of my professors well. They were accessible. Students frequently discussed faculty, affectionately calling them by last names. I only had three classes in large lecture halls with TAx. I had no adjunct professors. Jonah’s school is 52 percent adjuncts. Annoyingly the tenure faculty just went on strike for higher wages, but didn’t include adjuncts in their protests. Assholes.

    If you don’t thinking adjunct labor impacts instruction, read my piece about in the Atlantic – “The Cost of an Adjunct.” (Sorry having internet issues here….)

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    1. But, I think part of the questions there, about differing experiences, is how much of the difference is the institution, how much the institution, and how much you v J, and how much our generation v J’s generation, and how much our parents parenting v our parenting and how much the change in the world?.

      A situation where I would participate in an advisory meeting is pretty difficult to imagine which reminds me that if I have any notion that might be necessary, that school won’t be the right one for my kid.

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      1. bj said,

        “But, I think part of the questions there, about differing experiences, is how much of the difference is the institution, how much the institution, and how much you v J, and how much our generation v J’s generation, and how much our parents parenting v our parenting and how much the change in the world?”

        That sounds impossible to pin down.

        “A situation where I would participate in an advisory meeting is pretty difficult to imagine which reminds me that if I have any notion that might be necessary, that school won’t be the right one for my kid.”

        If our oldest kid were doing a straight-forward vanilla major at Hometown U., I don’t think sitting in on advising would be necessary, but our oldest is likely to do something cross-disciplinary where there may be weird interactions between requirements and where we don’t want to accidentally leave her a big patch of no coverage. (We’re in a position where her bachelor’s degree will be very affordable and she wants to do grad school, so there’s a lot of motivation to make sure that she makes a second trip to the academic buffet.)

        I wouldn’t want to sit in on advising more than once or twice, though.

        Husband also needs to figure out a diplomatic way to ask which are the good lower-level math instructors…We want to avoid being told, “They’re all equally wonderful in every way!”

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  11. This is all still too in the future for me, but as of this month, I’m now the parent of a teenager. When do I need to start checking the liquor bottles?

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    1. If you’re checking the liquor bottles to make sure you have enough to get through the teen years, check now and start stocking up. It gets worse before it gets better, but it does get much much better

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    2. Probably need to have “The Talk,” as I did, in which you remind them that Dad is kind of oblivious, and doesn’t much care anyway, and therefore likely won’t notice or say anything if minor amounts of liquor are purloined, but that if you water the liquor, you destroy the entire bottle from Dad’s perspective, and he actually will notice that and be very annoyed.

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    3. Depends on your kid. I look back 4 years and realized that I thought my kid was somehow going to morph in highschool into a different person, maybe Brenda on 90210, acquire a bad boy boyfriend, start purloining liquor for spodies, and smoking week on the beach. None of those things was likely to happen, if I were being rational in my prediction, and none has. We have faced other issues, though, which could have been predictable, including friends who have had significant needs.

      So, parenting depends on your kid (but, I wouldn’t leave the alcohol lying around in any case).

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      1. bj said,

        “Depends on your kid. I look back 4 years and realized that I thought my kid was somehow going to morph in highschool into a different person, maybe Brenda on 90210, acquire a bad boy boyfriend, start purloining liquor for spodies, and smoking week on the beach. None of those things was likely to happen, if I were being rational in my prediction, and none has. We have faced other issues, though, which could have been predictable, including friends who have had significant needs.”

        Yep.

        Oddly, we also have “friend with significant needs” here, too.

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    4. Our unofficial policy was that we knew he was going to drink and smoke, but our job was to make it as difficult as possible for him to achieve those goals.

      The bigger issue for us was teenage moodiness and the stupid cellphone. He went for about three or four years without giving me a hug. Going on vacation with us was the “worst thing ever.” And he was completely chained to group chats with his friends on three different social media platforms. A couple of his friends got into a lot of trouble, so keeping him from getting tangled up with the problem kids was a challenge. One year, he spent a great deal of time in his room with the door shut.

      The funny thing was that all that totally turned around when he was 17. He became his old self again around his senior year. He’s back to being happy, huggy, normal person again. Teenage hormones are rough.

      He’s on his way back from college right now, and I can’t stop smiling. Sounds like his exams went well.

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      1. My dad actually didn’t keep any liquor in the house when we kids were teens. Maybe that was why? Maybe he was just working too much then.

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      2. “The bigger issue for us was teenage moodiness and the stupid cellphone. ”

        This is why you need the liquor. May daughter switched from calling me mom to calling me mother (always said with a sneer) for several years. I’m so glad that’s over

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      3. Oh wow, my daughter switched from calling me Wendy to calling me Mother, and I counted that as a positive.

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      4. Smiles all around. Lovely that you are over the hump of teenagerdom and excited to have your young adult back with you.

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  12. Sort of off-topic, but a friend of mine sent this revision of Churchill pertinent to my life right now:

    “The period of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients – of grade-grubbing, extra-credit, and desperate pleas for leniency – has officially come to a close. In its place we have entered a period of consequences.”

    I have told all three of my classes that I am not answering any student email unless it has to do with the final exam.

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    1. Hah. There’s a study circulating on twitter that says that students/young employees think effort should matter more than professors & employers know it will.

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      1. bj said,

        “Hah. There’s a study circulating on twitter that says that students/young employees think effort should matter more than professors & employers know it will.”

        …especially last minute effort.

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  13. I’m still torn about whether we should have intervened more in our middle daughter’s college education. We pretty much didn’t intervene at all, and it has helped her to be mature, able to negotiate bureaucracies, and able to make decisions. But it cost us almost an entire year of extra tuition because when she applied to graduate after 4 years, she was told she was short several courses. Then it turned out she was supposed to be meeting with two separate advisers, one for her major (which she did) and one for other requirements (which she did not know about), This was at famously huge/anonymous UW Madison.

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    1. EB said,

      “But it cost us almost an entire year of extra tuition because when she applied to graduate after 4 years, she was told she was short several courses. Then it turned out she was supposed to be meeting with two separate advisers, one for her major (which she did) and one for other requirements (which she did not know about), This was at famously huge/anonymous UW Madison.”

      Oh, man!

      Like

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