Reasons for Increased Parental Involvement in the Lives of Their Students

There is no single reason for the rise in parent involvement in the lives of their children and their colleges. The smartphone is part of the answer. It’s easy to stay in touch. It is also the norm for students to start phoning immediately after class and call someone, a member of their tribe. They can text and e-mail in class. Parents are high on the list for many.

Undergraduates are also close to their parents and hold them in higher esteem than their predecessors.

When students were asked whether they had heroes, half (51 percent) said yes (Undergraduate Survey, 2009).

When asked to name their heroes, they didn’t cite celebrities or corporate, government, or social leaders. Less than 1 percent named people like Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Ronald Reagan, Rosa Parks, Al Gore, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher, their teachers, or their professors. They dismissed cultural heroes. Student explained it this way: “With reality TV, you see these people who you might have looked up to just totally trashed and not doing moral enough right things. So why would you want to consider them heroes?” “In terms of cultural heroes…it’s hard because we don’t even see sports stars like that anymore. We don’t see politicians. We have a very cynical generation.” They saw the faults in these people magnified by the media, which made them unworthy to serve as heroes. “Hero is a cliché.” “It’s almost like when I think of hero, I think of superhero.”

Instead, a majority (54 percent) of undergraduates with heroes named their parents. In total, two-thirds (66 percent) cited a family member. God and Jesus (8 percent) followed distantly behind (Undergraduate Survey, 2009). Students said their heroes were “role models,” “mentors,” “[people who] had done tremendous things,” “someone to look up to.” The reasons for choosing parents dealt principally with the sacrifices they made, the opportunities and encouragements they gave their children, and their accomplishments in the world:

  • They gave me “unconditional love,” “gave me confidence”
  • My mother “is an independent woman. Her husband left her with three small children at a very young age. She did not have it exactly easy.”
  • “…single mom. She gave up a lot to make sure I could be where I am.”
  • My dad “had to go through hard things to give me advantages he didn’t have.”
  • “They have good core values.”
  • “She’s always there.”
  • “My mom provides for our family and that is kind of who I want to be. I want [that] twenty years or thirty years from now[;] I hope my  children say that.”
  • “She grew up in a time of hatred and married interracially.”
  • “They sacrificed everything so we could have something.”
  • “We weren’t well off financially and dad hated his job. He overcame a lot of misfortunes and still has a positive upbeat attitude all the  time. He just kept true to himself.”
  • Dad “started with literally nothing and now has everything.”
  • “She just always, always listens to me, even when I am saying something totally stupid. She listens.”

The heroes of today’s students are a sharp contrast with their 1993 counterparts. Roughly the same percentage have heroes (55 percent) but who their heroes are has changed dramatically. Whereas parents were the most commonly mentioned heroes in 1993 (29 percent), the proportion of undergraduates who cite their parent now has almost doubled. Deities have declined significantly (15 percent) and public figures-entertainers (6 percent), politicians and government leaders (5 percent), and athletes (5 percent) as well as teachers and professors (5 percent)-have fallen off the list (Undergraduate Survey, 1993, 2009). The bottom line is that parents have risen in stature over the past two decades in the eyes of their children, which makes them far more likely for students to turn to for counsel and assistance.

A third factor as dean of students after dean of students told us is that today’s undergraduates have “a delayed sense of independence and being a grown up.” They have “a very extended adolescence.” The dean at an eastern liberal arts college said, “The same way that some people say sixty is the new forty, twenty-one is the new sixteen.” “Mature adulthood” is delayed in this generation. “Their mothers make their doctors’ appointments and do their laundry and write their papers and …” There is “almost an expectation because the parents have been involved so much all through their lives that this is normal for them. They don’t really question their parents being involved in their college life, which they are.”

Deans frequently described current undergraduates as “very needy.” The numbers using psychological counseling services are soaring across the country and students are coming to counseling with deeper and longer-term problems. Between 2001 and 2008, the number of incoming students reporting mental health issues increased at 68 percent of community colleges and 90 percent of the four-year colleges surveyed. Over the next three years, 77 percent of the colleges and universities surveyed had increased use of psychological counseling (Student Affairs Survey, 2008, 2011). The number of students on campus using psychological counseling ranged from 5 to 40 percent at different schools. Psychological counseling staff told us they believed the number of students experiencing severe psychiatric problems will continue to increase, “and the rarity and complexity of their issues will increase [as well]. There will be more of them and they will be more severe.”

Use of disability services, including affective, cognitive, and physical support, has also increased at 83 percent of four-year colleges and 72 percent of two-year colleges. Attention deficit disorder was cited as one of the fastest-growing disabilities (Student Affairs Survey, 2008).
This is a generation that has been well protected by their parents, “coddled” as one student newspaper editor stated. The vice president for student affairs at a western research university described “parenting today. We don’t want our kids to suffer and so we get involved. So they don’t learn how to deal with disappointment and frustration…So that when they come to college, when they’re hurt, they don’t know what to do with it because they have never had to walk through the pain.” “We have a big population of students [who] haven’t grown up with the coping skills, the problem-solving skills because of the parent involvement growing up.” They can’t solve their roommate problems and instead turn to their parents because “they don’t have the skills that can solve it.”

A consequence of the lack of experience with failure and concomitant need to develop coping skills is that this is a generation “who have done very little wrong and made very few mistakes.” Current undergraduates have been characterized by several deans as the generation in which “everyone won a trophy or ribbon.” They think very well of themselves and believe they are special. The vice president of student affairs for a Midwestern regional university characterized current students as “the you generation-you are great, you are wonderful.” This has produced a sense of entitlement and a need for constant reaffirmation. A liberal arts college student agreed, stating, “Our generation has this real sense of entitlement. Like our parents were the children of the sixties and seventies and they said I am going to do the best that I can to give my children what they need and what they want and what they deserve.” A result is that they are unprepared for stumbles. Even worse, they are surprised when they occur and baffled about how to deal with them. For the dean of a southern liberal arts college the result was a real conundrum. “In terms of holding students accountable and instilling responsibility, that bumped up against a sense of entitlement, [which] gets pretty challenging especially when you have the parents…with the same sense of entitlement asking you what in the heck are you doing to my poor Johnny.”

A final factor is consumerism. This was a reality in the prior study as well but it has grown in the current study. In a 2009 nationwide poll by the National center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda, 60 percent of respondents believed that colleges and universities are “like most business and mainly care about the bottom line,” a number which has risen steadily since 2007 versus 32 percent who agreed that institutions of higher education were largely concerned with “making sure students had a good educational experience” (Immerwahr, 2010, p. 2). A student at a Pacific Coast university captured the statistics when he said, “In general, it seems like the college campuses, especially this one, is more concerned with profits, how much money they can get from their students. The education system just seems to be going more towards a purely business standpoint rather than being here for the students.”

Deans reported that parents and students behaved increasingly like consumers and treated colleges as they would businesses. A Pacific coast vice president for student affairs said they act as if “they are the customer and it’s kind of I’m paying for this so I’m entitled to this. I actually had a student tell me that because they paid for it and they were going to class, they deserved an A.” A western research university peer agreed, saying parents have shifted the sense of higher education from the educational mission to a consumer model…I think it’s easier for them to think about us as a hotel or business.” As one would call the supermarket, the cable company, or the bank to complain about poor service, parents and students are increasingly treating colleges in the same fashion. The fact is that they are paying high prices, which are commonly rising more quickly than inflation. There is an expectation that as prices increase, so should product quality. And half of the undergraduates surveyed are not happy with the way in which they are being treated. They do not believe colleges are “giving adequate respect to the people paying tuition” (Undergraduate Survey, 2009).

Students complained not infrequently about poor customer service-courses being unavailable, “bureaucracy,” inaccurate information, inability to get information, being sent from office to office, and the like. Deans countered that this generation asks questions, wants to be told what to do rather than trying to figure out the answers themselves. To some extent, students and their parents are responding to institutions of higher education the same way they would to other businesses that they felt had not served them well. At least one out of every eight colleges surveyed experienced parent grievances against faculty members (19 percent) or staff (13 percent) or were taken to court by parents or students (13 percent) in the past year (Student Affairs Survey, 2008).

Parent involvement in higher education does not appear to be a quickly passing fad. For a decade, institutions have reported continuing increases in parent involvement in college affairs and their children’s lives. Digital devices, which serve as electronic umbilical cords, are staples in the iPhone campus culture. For more than a quarter of students, their parents are their heroes. And the consumer attitude regarding college is likely to grow as long as the prices keep rising. In any case, colleges are not acting as if they expect parent involvement to diminish soon. One college was talking seriously of creating a dean of parents’ position. Another laughingly said they had the equivalent of bouncers at orientation to shoo parents away. Parent newsletters, e-mail blasts, and parallel and joint events for parents and their children, such as career fairs, are increasingly common. The same is becoming true in the workplace. As the phone call volume increased, one major investment bank went so far as to institute a parents’ day to orient the moms and dads of new hires to the workplace and its expectations.  


Immerwahr, J. A. (2010). Squeeze play 2010: Public attitudes about college access and affordability. New York: Public Agenda.