The ritual was simple 20 years ago: BU parents dropped their kids off on move-in day, unloaded the car, and didn’t see them again until Thanksgiving. In between, there were letters (most of them written by parents) and phone calls (mostly from kids who’d run out of money).
Many parents still do that, but they have been joined by a new breed: helicopter parents, moms and dads who hover over their college-age children, chiming in on everything from housing assignments to homework.
A lot of parents, university administrators say, are simply informed and enthusiastic consumers who want their children to get the most out of an increasingly expensive college education. But faculty and staff at universities across the country complain that some parents are now shouldering responsibilities that should be part of the college learning experience — talking to professors about disappointing grades or mapping strategies for finding the best internships and jobs.
Wayne Snyder, the associate dean for students in the College of Arts and Sciences, remembers trying to explain to a concerned father that the University prefers to work with students directly to resolve academic issues. “He kept saying, ‘No, no, she’s just a child,’” Snyder says. A BU junior tells of a friend’s mother who researched professors’ areas of expertise and then created 15 possible class schedules for her daughter’s freshman year.
The father of another student “was furious that he was planning to go on an Alternative Spring Break trip to do community service in Oklahoma, because he said that driving across the country in a van full of college kids is too dangerous,” says Katie Koch (CAS’09, COM’09). “As their e-mail exchange got more heated and the deadline to sign up for the trip approached, his dad actually started sending him statistics on teenage driving fatalities and links to traffic reports.”
Then there was the freshman at a Bay State Road residence this September. When the topic of bathroom cleanliness came up at a house meeting with the building’s RA, reports an upperclassman, she raised her hand and said, “Don’t worry, my mom already scrubbed and Lysoled the third-floor bathroom today!”
And Brian McCoy, regional vice president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and vice president of student affairs at Nichols College, in Dudley, Mass., once arrived for an independent-study meeting to find the student’s mother waiting to join the discussion.
Some parents, Snyder says, “just can’t give up control.”
The term “helicopter parent” and the idea that today’s parents are getting too involved became headline fodder in 2000, when the so-called millennial generation began entering college. Their parents — mostly baby boomers who had started families as 30-somethings, later than in previous decades — had more money and chose to spend more time on their children as they grew up, says Elizabeth Markson, a CAS adjunct professor of sociology. “The college student today has generally been a kind of trophy child,” Markson says. “By the time a middle-class child reaches college age, he or she is likely to have been the recipient of many goodies.”
Those goodies, which include designer jeans, pricey electronics, expensive after-school activities, and family vacations abroad, signal a common denominator among helicopter parents: affluence. Nazli Kibria, a CAS associate professor of sociology, whose research focuses on families and ethnicity, says that the time and resources needed to be a helicopter parent are luxuries not available to low-income families, where parents often must work more than one job. “Parents have increasingly invested a great deal in making sure their child has all of the opportunities to remain middle or upper class — enrichment classes, helping them with their schoolwork, paying for tutorials,” she says. “There’s so much effort put into making sure that they achieve that there’s implicitly a continuation of that pattern.”
By the time a student is a high school senior, these parents have invested thousands on the extras they hope will gain their son or daughter an edge in the competitive college admissions game. Then there are the college expenses: at BU, for instance, tuition alone is $34,930 for the current academic year. Room and board and student fees typically add $10,000 annually. At these prices, says College of General Studies Dean Linda Wells, it’s no surprise that parents are keenly interested in their son’s or daughter’s experience. “With the amount of money it takes,” she says, “both the students and the parents feel the investment.”
Daniel Solworth (CAS’06), who works in the Office of the Dean of Students, where he handles incoming parent requests, says he frequently hears a variation on “‘I’m paying 50 grand a year; I think that I should be able to’ — insert request here.”
Click here for “The Really Long Good-bye, Part two: Making the Connection.”
Do you have helicopter parents?
Jessica Ullian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.