A Separate Piece

Creating campus communications programs that give parents their own experiences

Parents have become increasingly important as a campus constituency, a change driven by both financial and generational factors. Their increased involvement--from recruitment to commencement--demands an organized communiations effort that strikes a balance between information and involvement, and many campuses have responded by adding programming and dedicated staff. This article outlines essential stratgeies for communicating with parents, including creating separate experiences for them.

"We graduated," a parent declared last spring in an e-mail to Marjorie Savage. That was a first, says Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota. Although she is troubled when parents describe their child's college experience in terms of "we," she and her campus colleagues have managed to turn parents' increased involvement in their children's lives into an institutional advantage.

Twenty years ago, the idea of parent relations at colleges and universities was almost nonexistent. But parents have become increasingly important as a campus constituency during the last decade—a change driven by both financial and generational factors.

Parents' increased levels of involvement have been well documented: According to a 2003 study by GDA Integrated Services, during the recruitment stage of the college application process, 65 percent of prospective students' parents will read all publications of the institutions in which their child is interested and 50 percent will go to these campuses' Web sites. In a separate 2004 study, Stamats Communications found that parents plan to visit their children on campus five or six times during freshman year. And in UMN's most recent parent survey in spring 2004, two-thirds of UMN parents said they talk to their college student children two or more times a week.

Despite this evidence of parents' increased involvement—from recruitment to commencement and beyond—best practices in communicating with parents are nascent compared with those in other areas such as admissions, development, and alumni and media relations. Many institutions have responded by adding programming and staff dedicated to communicating with this constituency. In 1998, Susan Brown, director of Northeastern University's parent program, created Administrators Promoting Parental Involvement, which began as a way to allow practitioners in this field to share information and network. Today, APPI holds an annual conference each spring and, through its National Clearinghouse for Parent Programs and Services, it provides sample plans and materials from institutions.

The overall goal of parent communications, says Robert Sevier, senior vice president of Stamats, "is to strike a balance between information and involvement. Consider where that balance is with major points in the continuum of parent relations in mind: the college selection process, freshman year transition, problems and major questions during a student's academic career, career and graduate school preparation, and the transition from student to alumnus."

Organizational structures and services for parent communications differ from campus to campus, but innovators agree on the essential strategies for advancing parents from "prospects" to "graduates": partner and centralize, assess levels of engagement, and create separate experiences.

Team building
Parent relations is another aspect of brand management, says Educational Marketing Group President Bob Brock. "But on many campuses there are several offices independently communicating with parents. The issue of decentralized communications can be enormously damaging to institutions if they are unable to work out solutions to it," he says.

Paul Marthers, Reed College's dean of admission, suggests starting by talking about how communicating with parents has — and hasn't—changed in recent years. "Admissions, student services, alumni affairs, development, and even faculty need to be seen as potential partners who can work together to engage parents with the institution," he says. Brown agrees. "There has to be a universitywide commitment to the importance of engaging parents," she says.

When clients ask how to start an advancement effort like this, "we answer with tried-and-true advice," Brock says. "Gather the major players and see if you have consensus about your goals. Then take it to the president. Unless, of course, the president is the one who is driving the process, which happens more and more." The composition of parent relations teams will vary depending on the organizational structure and character of each campus, but those who deal directly with parents and those who are primarily responsible for maintaining the institution's identity — communications and marketing pros — should be at the table.

Where the team "lives" also will vary. A February 2003 national study of parent programs by UMN's Savage found that 52 percent of parent services are housed in student affairs; 40 percent are housed in advancement. Nearly 5 percent report to academic affairs and only 2.4 percent to the admissions office. The study also notes that "a growing number of APPI conference participants have said they either are now or may soon be reporting to enrollment management at their institution." The reason for the shift? Admissions is typically the institutional entry point for parents, and parent-services staff members believe their programs increase student retention—one of the key factors in enrollment management.

Regardless of the structure or home of the parent relations function, those responsible for parent communications need to be viewed as brand managers, providing not only big-picture messaging but also a high level of customer service. One way of maintaining that customer service is by using what EMG's Brock calls "the concierge concept"—one-stop
shopping for parents. UMN's first survey of 500 UMN parents in 1995 supported this idea, identifying the need for a single point of contact for parents. "Although the comments were all worded differently, the message was, 'We don't need to know how the University of Minnesota is structured. We just need answers to our questions,'" Savage says. As a result UMN began publicizing her name and contact information as a resource for parents. Northeastern's Brown distributes magnets and postcards to NEU parents each year with her number listed as the one to call for any parent question.

Making the concierge model work means relying on a strong campuswide team. "We're a small office, and in order to function, we have partnerships with just about every department on campus," Savage says. The university bookstore staff handles registration for Parents Weekend. UMN's faculty club accepts parents as members, and residence hall staff members host parent events on move-in weekends and pass along timely messages to parents—such as housing sign-up deadlines, when the heat will be turned on, and other issues that parents might hear students complain about—throughout the year. University relations staffers develop and maintain UMN's parent Web site, the athletics department provides discounted event tickets during high-volume parent visitation days, and Savage and her staff work with the government relations office to help inform parents of legislative issues.

Taking their temperature
There are some parallels between parent relations and media relations. Although the media are key institution audiences, what drives the campus-media relationship is the influence the media have on their target audiences (the public). Similarly, parents have a powerful influence over an institution's true target audience—students. Good parent relations actually begins with students, many experts say.

"The biggest challenge we see for institutions right now," Brock says, "is that while it has become increasingly important to communicate with parents during the recruitment stage, it can be easy to overreach." Citing the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, Brock says Generation Y students typically have very strong relationships with their parents. But in working with clients, he has found distinct differences in how audience segments respond to recruitment communications targeted to parents.

Cautioning that these are broad generalizations, Brock says that "urban prospects are, in general, more traveled, more affluent, and as a group, higher performing. As such, they tend to be more economically dependent on parents but less sensitive to cost." They also visit more campuses and tend to make their own final college decisions within a comparatively large "consideration set," relying on parents for approval of final choice. "Rural prospects are more likely to be less affluent," he says. They are more apt to apply to fewer campuses within the region and to have fewer campuses in the consideration set, and they are less likely to rely on parental approval of their final choice. "In this group, however, when parents are very involved, they are more likely to be the principal decision maker," Brock adds. It's easy to create caricatures of entire audiences, he says, and it can be a mistake to institute broad-based strategies without knowing how various student and parent audiences might respond.

When developing recruitment materials, for example, campus communicators should keep in mind that most students say they drive their college-search process, yet parents indicate that they are more involved than students admit. "It's really a mutual veto," said John Maguire, president of Maguire and Associates, in a fall 1998 interview with the Lawlor Review. "The models we build show conclusively that the parents are closer to being correct in the level of influence that they exert on their sons and daughters. … Very rarely will a student end up at an institution that isn't the choice of both."

So how should communications professionals develop messages that resonate with both parents and prospective students? Experts say they should rely on a combination of consistent qualitative and quantitative research. "Surveys, by nature, ask for quantifiable answers to very specific questions and are not good at gauging depth of feeling, range of feelings, or the human reactions to various influencing factors," such as parent influence on college choice, Brock says. "Once you get a focus group talking openly about such influences, the discussions are incredibly informative." A single focus group will not yield actionable information about motivational influences, but if a campus conducts them periodically, Brock says, they are the best way to understand how students respond to such influences.

Post-recruitment, it's even more important to survey parents and students. Dehne advises institutions to start by asking students what they think their parents want and need to know and what their parents regularly ask them about. He recommends conducting focus groups with five groups of students: first-years, seniors, athletes, student leaders, and students of color. Each group has a slightly different take on parental involvement, subtleties that might not be evident in a single group, he says.

Lipman Hearne President Rob Moore advises surveying current and recent parents about existing parent communications programs to discover what they find useful, what may be intrusive or misdirected, and what they would like, and then basing program improvements on research results. This is precisely the tack UMN took to develop its program, which began in 1993 with a parent newsletter. Two years later, UMN's first reader survey pointed to a need for giving parents more direct interactions with the campus. The university responded by creating programs that give parents reasons to come to campus, notably a Parents Weekend, and by creating a single point of contact. Although Savage says she's added services and events based on parents' requests, she balances that by considering what she reasonably can deliver. "Be patient and explain carefully when parents ask for things you can't deliver," she says. Setting goals that are aligned with the institution's mission will help parent program managers navigate a very cluttered path.

Catch and release
When Stamats' Sevier discusses his data about the number of times parents plan to visit campus during their student's freshman year, campus administrators often groan. They start thinking about "helicopter parents"—the hovering Baby Boom generation of parents who can't let go—whose increased involvement with their Millennial sons and daughters might prevent some students from taking responsibility for themselves as maturing adults. (See "Giving Up on Letting Go" on page 15.) Administrators have plenty of stories about audacious parents who request everything from wake-up calls for their students to early move-in days. But they also note the positive benefits of parent involvement, including higher graduation rates and better student behavior, such as a reduction in post-athletics-event riots.

Savage says the key to taking the groan out of parent involvement is not only to help parents disengage from their students but also to engage them through their own experiences with the institution. "We want parents to feel comfortable being on campus, to have things to do on campus, and to feel welcome here, without being overly involved in their student's life," she says.

"When students complain because they are struggling academically or because they don't like a policy, parents have their own experience to rely on and they are more likely to encourage their child to persevere," she adds.

Examples of separate experiences and connections for parents vary widely. In UMN's 2003 national survey of parent programs, the top five activities campuses offer to parents were parent/family weekend (74 percent), parent orientation (61 percent), communications/newsletter (55 percent), fund raising (44 percent) and a parents council/association (37 percent).

Parent trap?
Although it initially might feel like a burden to address the needs of a more involved and demanding parent constituency, those who have made the effort find it pays off. In UMN's spring 2004 parent survey, 96 percent of parent respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with UMN's parent communications and 97 percent said they were satisfied or very satisfied with parent programs and services. Both numbers have risen steadily since the first survey in 1995. Parents who take advantage of UMN's parent events and services are among the most satisfied. Perhaps the most significant benefit is parents' potential to affect core institution issues, Savage says. "For the past couple of years in our parent communications, we have been placing an emphasis on the importance of students graduating in four years. Now we're seeing a significant change in parents' expectations." Only two years ago, 58 percent of UMN parents expected their son or daughter to graduate in four years or less. Today, 76 percent have that expectation.

Another important benefit Savage notes is that parents' desire for affiliation with the university is lasting longer than the time their children are on campus. "Many parents, at least in the upper Midwest, didn't necessarily have the best relationship with the school they attended in the late 1960s, 1970s, or early 1980s," she says. "Now, though, they want to feel a part of their child's school and participate in the traditions. This seems like a great opportunity."

Amid the many dimensions of parent relations, Moore sees communications as the constant. "As with any other relationship that matures and changes through the lifecycle needs of the individual, parent relations has to evolve," he says, to involve various players from enrollment management, student life, academic affairs, development, and alumni relations. "But in all cases, communications is the gatekeeper," he emphasizes, "making sure that the outreach stays on message, is coordinated across institutional units and functions, and meets the broader strategic goals of the institution."

This article is from the November/December 2004 CURRENTS. Read the related sidebar, "Top Tools."