Handling 'Helicopter Parents': The Days of Parents Dropping off Their Student on Campus and Waving Good-Bye Are Gone. Enter the World of the Parent Coordinator

By Lum, Lydia | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, November 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

Handling 'Helicopter Parents': The Days of Parents Dropping off Their Student on Campus and Waving Good-Bye Are Gone. Enter the World of the Parent Coordinator


Lum, Lydia, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


On any given day at California Polytechnic State University, Nona Nickelsen fields phone calls from parents about their children's tuition or dormitory meal plans. Nickelsen also might be lobbed a question like this one, posed by a worried mother: "My son's classmates all have girlfriends and boyfriends. What can I do to help my son find someone?"

Welcome to the world of parent coordinators, who now work at about 70 percent of the nation's four-year colleges and universities. Although their job titles vary from one campus to another, their duties typically include organizing campus events for annual parent weekends, producing regular newsletters and staffing telephone hotlines--some of them toll-free. The coordinators field questions ranging from financial aid and academic advising to homesickness and how to get a student to wake up in time for class.

"This is a whole new career field," says Dr. Gwendolyn J. Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, which represents about 11,000 student affairs officials.

Once upon a time, parents would help their children move into dorm rooms and apartments, then wave good-bye for the semester. Not anymore. Baby boomers have arguably been more involved in their children's educations--and their lives in general--than any preceding generation of parents, university observers say. And boomers see no reason why that hands-on approach should change just because their children have moved out of the house and onto campus. In fact, their hovering nature has earned baby boomers the nickname "helicopter parents" by coordinators. It's a moniker some parents proudly claim as they deluge college offices with their questions. And in this era of instantaneous communication, helicopter parents expect detailed answers right away.

Parent programs and offices have been around for decades. Dungy says several dozen universities had coordinators in the 1970s. In the past decade, colleges have expanded many of these initiatives and redefined the job of the coordinator, she says. At many schools, officials are recognizing the wisdom of making the coordinator not only a full-time position, but also one with plenty of clout.

For instance, at the 27,000-student West Virginia University, parent advocate Susan Jennings Lantz reports directly to the president. Since stepping into the job in 1999, she has often attended cabinet-level meetings where she is the only one without a title of at least vice president. Lantz, who fields at least 3,000 parent calls annually, credits her background in teaching with helping her gain the trust of faculty as well as parents. On the college level, she has taught business writing, English composition and served as an academic adviser. She also has been a substitute teacher in public schools.

Such a background is common among Lantz's counterparts. Dungy says parent coordinators typically hold academic degrees in disciplines such as liberal arts, management and psychology. About half of them earn more than $50,000 a year. Programs vary from campus to campus, but those at private schools are often housed under university advancement, while those at public institutions are often under student affairs.

While parent programs and coordinators grow increasingly common at four-year schools, they remain limited and in some instances nonexistent at historically Black and minority-serving institutions. However, Dungy expects that to change as the children of baby boomers continue to enroll in college. In fact, the tide will sweep into community colleges, too, she predicts. "Eventually, every school will figure out a way to do this."

Meanwhile, officials at predominantly White institutions are making extra efforts to reach out to the parents of minorities, first-generation college students and other historically underserved populations. Brian Watkins, director of parent and family affairs at the University of Maryland's flagship campus in College Park, says the 6,500 parents who receive his online monthly newsletter are as diverse as the students they send to the university. …

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