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Colleges try to contend with hovering parents

Some colleges are dealing with a growing amount of complaining by parents. Colgate University has decided to publicly prioritize educating students over customer service.
Carly Turro sorts through items while moving into her dorm room as her parents Fiona, left, and Joe take a break at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.Kevin Rivoli / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They’re called “helicopter parents,” for their habit of hovering — hyper-involved — over their children’s lives. Here at Colgate University, as elsewhere, they have become increasingly bold in recent years, telephoning administrators to complain about their children’s housing assignments, roommates and grades.

Recently, one parent demanded to know what Colgate planned to do about the sub-par plumbing her daughter encountered on a study-abroad trip to China.

“That’s just part of how this generation has been raised,” said Mark Thompson, head of Colgate’s counseling services. “You add a $40,000 price tag for a school like Colgate, and you have high expectations for what you get.”

For years, officials here responded to such calls by biting their lips and making an effort to keep parents happy.

But at freshman orientation here last week, parents heard a different message: Colgate is making educating students a higher priority than customer service. The liberal arts college of 2,750 students has concluded helicopter parenting has gotten out of hand, undermining the out-of-the-classroom lessons on problem-solving, seeking help and compromise that should be part of a college education.

Those lessons can’t be learned if the response to every difficulty is a call to mom and dad for help.

“We noticed what everybody else noticed. We have a generation of parents that are heavily involved in their students lives and it causes all sorts of problems,” said Dean of the College Adam Weinberg. College, he said, should be “a time when you go from living in someone else’s house to becoming a functioning, autonomous person.”

Colgate says it has ample resources to help students. But when parents call, unless there’s a safety risk, they’re usually told to encourage their children to seek out those resources themselves.

As for the China inquiry, Weinberg said, “we tried to explain in the 21st century, the ability to plop down in a foreign country and hit the ground running is a fundamental skill.”

Baby boomer bond
Heightened parental involvement is one of the biggest changes on college campuses in the last decade, experts say. One major reason is the tight bond between Baby Boomer parents and their children.

“This is a group of parents who have been more involved in their children’s development since in utero on than any generation in American history,” said Helen E. Johnson, author of “Don’t Tell Me What To Do, Just Send Money,” a guide for college parents. “I think colleges have been far too responsive in inappropriate ways to this very savvy group of consumers.”

Another factor is cell phones. The era of the 10-minute weekly check-in from the pay phone in the hall has given way to nearly constant contact. Rob Sobelman, a Colgate sophomore, says when students walk out of a test, many dial home immediately to report how it went. One friend checks in with her mother every night before going to sleep, he said.

“Even 10 years ago, parents couldn’t even get hold of their children,” said Colgate President Rebecca Chopp. “If you reached them once a week it was a miracle.” Now she says she’s hearing from older alumni who are “worried their grandchildren won’t learn accountability and responsibility.”

Many schools have noticed the trend, but they’ve been reluctant to alienate parents. Some have tried to accommodate the change, opening parental liaison offices, for instance.

Don't call them, they'll call you
But some schools, while glad to see parents care, are expressing concern over the downside. During freshman orientation this year at Northeastern University in Boston, administrators urged parents not to call their children but to let them call home when they want to talk. At Washington University in St. Louis, upperclassmen perform skits about healthy transitioning for parents. The University of Vermont hires students as “parent bouncers” to delicately keep parents from interfering in, for instance, meetings with advisers.

At Colgate, parents used to receive a sheet listing administrators’ phone numbers. This year, they got a statement about Colgate’s philosophy of self-reliance — a message that was hammered home repeatedly in talks by administrators. Next year, the school may assign parents summer reading on the transition to college.

The approach will continue throughout the year, part of a larger emphasis at Colgate on “teachable moments” outside the classroom. A memo sent to departments ranging from residential life to counseling to public safety reminds employees: “We will not solve problems for students because it robs students of an opportunity to learn.”

Mike Herling, a 1979 graduate with sons in the sophomore and freshman classes, said he welcomes the approach.

“It’s the intercession on a regular basis they’re trying to discourage, and I think it’s important they do,” he said. “Kids are much more self-confident and develop better decision-making skills if they’re given the opportunity to make decisions for themselves.”

But Colgate acknowledges not all parents will be happy, and that there have already been unpleasant calls.

“We get quoted the price tag frequently,” said Dean of Student Affairs Jim Terhune. “But what you’re paying for is an education, not a room at the Sheraton, and sometimes that education is uncomfortable.”

Says Thompson, the counseling director and the parent of a college student himself: “I don’t want them to be happy today. I want them to be happy a decade from now.”