Giving Up on Letting Go

A reexamination of the parent-student-campus connection

On campus, in the press, and in society at large, parents often are blamed for not letting go of their children, for being too pushy and overinvolved. But contrary to popular belief, kids don't want their parents to let go, and the "helicopter parent" phenomenon may be related to changing notions of adulthood. College is no longer considered the threshold to adulthood, researchers say. This article traces the historical and societal changes in the way parents relate to their college-age children and their institutions, from in loco parentis to the passage of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act in the early 1970s to recent challenges to FERPA. It also examines the emotional and financial drivers behind helicopter parents.

Overprogrammed. Overgroomed. Overinvolved. These are just some of the words college and university administrators use to describe today's students. Many administrators blame parents who, they say, are pushy and refuse to disengage. There's practically a new lexicon to describe today's Baby Boomer parents: MBA mothers who "mommy-tracked" to become "soccer moms" and focus on their "trophy children." Don't these "helicopter parents" know when it's time to let go?

Although the existence of these hovering parents is well-documented by now, what often surprises administrators most is the fact that Millennial sons and daughters don't want their parents to let go. At a recent Cornell University parent orientation session, held while the new freshmen were having their first meetings with advisers, cell phones rang throughout the room as the students called their parents for advice about classes.

In a relationship-oriented business like advancement, it's imperative to understand the nuances of relationships with and among constituents. The parent-student-campus connection is one of the most important—and one of the toughest to decipher. Luckily there's an ever-growing body of knowledge to help advancement officers manage these relationships in ways that benefit the campus and everyone involved.

Late onset adulthood
At first glance, it would seem that the continued mollycoddling of children into their college years—with their consent—is a sign of bad parenting. But perhaps parents and children can't let go because it just isn't time yet.

The conventional wisdom that college is the threshold to adulthood doesn't necessarily hold true anymore. In a MacArthur Foundation-funded project, the Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy, researchers found that although many people still believe that the transition to adulthood happens in a person's late teens and early 20s, adulthood actually happens much later.
Christine Schelhas-Miller, who teaches adolescent development at Cornell, says there are two developmental aspects to consider in the transition to adulthood. One is the abruptness or gradualness of the transition. In our culture, she says, adolescents do not grow up working alongside adults, learning the adult roles slowly over time as they would in an agrarian culture. They are thrust from the role of student to worker, sometimes never having experienced the field in which they get their first job.

The other aspect is clarity about when adulthood begins. "Adulthood is a cultural determination, and our culture hasn't defined it clearly, especially for 18- to 21-year-olds," she says. "There is incredible ambiguity around those years. When we need a military force, we call an 18-year-old an adult. When we worry that an 18-year-old will drink and drive and kill someone, we change the drinking age to 21. In our culture, adolescents get different adult rights and responsibilities at different times."

According to the Network's work—based on decades of U.S. Census data, 500 in-depth interviews with a geographically and socioeconomically diverse group of young people, and a survey of 1,400 18- to 89-year-olds—many young people do not complete the transition to adulthood these days until their late 20s or even early 30s. The Network's July 2003 report, "Between Adolescence and Adulthood: Expectations About the Timing of Adulthood," describes various transitions to adulthood, including "the completion of school, entry into the labor force, and exit from the parental household, followed by marriage and parenthood" and "the acquisition of the skills and attitudes needed to perform adult roles." By either measure, the timetable of earlier generations is out of sync with the reality. In addition, the previous generation has now agreed that middle-class status is necessary to be an adult. "To enter the middle class," the report states, "it is almost imperative to make an educational commitment that spans the early 20s, and often longer. … Young people now often linger in a state of 'semi-autonomy' during their 20s, combining support from their families with whatever they can make in the labor market and borrow."

And now, as the trappings of middle-class society have become harder to attain, "collectively we have pushed the age of adulthood back," Schelhas-Miller says. Is it any wonder, then, that parents have challenged the "drop them off and wave goodbye" scenario of past generations?

Campus administrators see great irony in this cultural development. They cite the seeming hypocrisy of Boomer parents who protested and went to great lengths to be treated as adults in the 1970s, bringing about the demise of in loco parentis and ushering in the era of the Family Education Right to Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, which protects the privacy of student education records even from parents who might be paying the bills. (Students need to sign a release to allow their parents access to such records as grades, finances, and judiciary proceedings.) They are dumbfounded when these parents now question FERPA when it applies to their own children. Perhaps it's not the Boomers who have changed their tune, but society as a whole.

"Social scientists are beginning to recognize a new stage of life, which, for lack of a better phrase, we call early adulthood," the Network report states. "This new stage is not merely an extension of adolescence as has been claimed in the mass media. Nor is it simply a refusal to accept adult responsibilities. Young adults are physically mature and often have formidable intellectual, social, and psychological skills. Most are actively involved in work and/or school, and are developing romantic relationships."

Implications for education
So although there might not be such a thing as "a little bit pregnant," it seems there is such a thing as "a little bit adult." Consequently, from recruitment onward, institution leaders find themselves navigating complex paths with these emerging adults and their parents, paths that have both programmatic and legal implications.

Many institution leaders now see the value in marketing their campuses to parents and prospective students as "co-purchasers" of the education their institutions deliver. "This means that direct marketing to parents is essential and comes earlier in the process than [it did] five years ago," says Jerry Cramer, senior development officer at Taylor University. Parents want more than just factual information, he says. They want an emotional connection, which will influence their satisfaction, support, and commitment. Institution leaders and marketing consultants describe parents as brand-conscious and savvy about their potential return on investment. This consumer mentality, however, can be one of the factors that complicates a student's autonomy. "The willingness of parents to negotiate financial aid is a major issue," says George Dehne, president of GDA Integrated Services. "If the college negotiates its financial aid offer downward, parents can think everything at the college is negotiable, including housing and grades."

Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota, believes that record-high tuitions also inadvertently have affected the issue. "I see frustration among parents that boils down to 'I'm paying the bills, and you're cashing my checks, so why do I have to work through my student to get these records?'" She also cites amendments to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act in 1998, which allow institution officials to contact parents when students are found to have violated campus policies on drugs and alcohol—information that previously was protected. She anticipates more parent demands for access to education records such as grades and billing statements in the next few years.

Mixed blessing?
Although campus administrators have—and often are willing to share—plenty of firsthand horror stories about helicopter parents, it's important to keep in mind that the involved-parent phenomenon is not just about pushy parents. The semi-autonomy of young adults illuminates the value society places on entry into the middle class. In previous generations, college graduation, marriage, family, and financial stability were the key markers of adulthood; financial stability at a certain level by an individual is now the sine qua non of adulthood.

But Cornell's Schelhas-Miller says these cultural determinations are fluid. One need only look beyond the Boomers to the members of Generation X who are now becoming parents. According to "Generation X Parents: From Grunge to Grown Up," a recent study by the Boston marketing strategy firm Reach Advisors and reported by Ann Hulbert in a July 4, 2004, New York Times article, Gen-Xers "have turned into family boosters." The United States' debt-burdened younger parents, the Reach study explains, embrace their prospects of downward mobility with equanimity—even enthusiasm. "Unlike their elders," Hulbert writes, "they value family time over money and status." In other words, while they're less brand-conscious than Boomers, they do value their children, which might mean a new iteration of helicopter parents. Can't you just hear the whir on the horizon now?

This article is from the November/December 2004 CURRENTS.