“There is a mother on the phone for you” is not a sentence that most university administrators or professors are eager to hear. We get instant insights of helicopter or lawnmower parents swooping in to “fix” their offspring’s latest complaint. A decade ago, I heard the term “B-52” is used to describe parents who escalate relatively simple matters to the level of carpet bombing threats (eg, “I’m going to fire you for the ‘C’ you gave my son.”). No wonder it’s so common in campus culture that parents shouldn’t be seen or heard, except when moving in the day or when school starts.
But times and the world have changed. As a new campus leader, especially if there is an outward-facing component of your role — such as a chair or dean — you should appreciate the following:
- For parents, their children’s college education is the most valuable investment they are concerned about.
- College students today are much more attached to their parents than previous generations. So while college should be a factor of maturation, we cannot expect modern parents to “leave” their children the way our children did.
- Student success in recent years has been threatened by a global pandemic and accompanying financial and psychological crises. We can’t ignore families in helping students.
- Parents play a vital role in the recruitment and retention of college students – and this role may be more influential between communities of different race, ethnicity, class, nationality, wealth, and even region.
- Parents’ concerns for their children’s future — and concerns about safety, participation, grades, and employability — are entirely reasonable.
- Many parents are unaware of how the academic system works and so may be forgiven for not following the correct channels to resolve a question or dispute.
In these trying times, we must seize the initiative and work with parents – not keep them away or resent their “interference”. So here are some best practices for engaging parents for the benefit of all:
Provide persuasive answers to the questions “why college is important” and “why choose our institution/major major”. The American Soldiers Act helped my father become the first in his family to attend college. At the time, it wasn’t really necessary to “sell” a college degree to baby boomers who yearned for a better life after the shocks of the Great Depression and World War II. “Going to college” was seen as the path to middle-class prosperity embodied in the American Dream.
By contrast, in a trend that accelerated in 2008 and is now endemic, parents ask us directly:
- If I give you my daughter and a lot of money, what will the result be? Will she end up in my basement with tons of debt and odds are?
- Why should you go to your university instead of the other ten who offer similar offers and offer similar scholarships?
- What is your major’s value to its well-being and security?
As an administrator, part of your job now is to be able to explain – clearly and concisely, with data if necessary – why parents should trust you regarding their child’s future.
Here’s how we tried to make this case at the College of Communications that I supervised: First, we explicitly sought to reassure parents and students that we would empower the latter and benefit from them in life and career success. Our casual mantra, cliched as it may sound to faculty ears, makes sense to our intended audience: “We’ll teach your child the newest and most, tried and true.” We pledge to regularly update the curriculum and prepare students to understand and thrive in the ever-changing world of media technologies, techniques and tactics, as well as industries and situations. Our primary marketing and branding strategy is to promise students and parents a safe, lifetime return on their investment.
In short, start your relationship with potential students and their families with a detailed, evidence-based case that your value is real and they can trust you.
Preached powerfully for families in middle and high school. Key lesson in brand marketing: It is not enough to have a compelling message that appeals to your target audience – you must also communicate it creatively, original and repetitively to them by all necessary means, both physical and digital. What does this mean in practice:
- Create many types of digital materials, from websites to social media presentations to eloquent infographics, and show them to high school students (and now, increasingly, middle school students), guidance counselors, school administrators, teachers and, yes, extended family members .
- Don’t just rely on digital marketing. Bring your case face-to-face (if safety protocols permit), and work with the recruitment and admissions staff on your campus. Build relationships with secondary schools and visit with delegations of administrators, staff, faculty and local alumni. Holding workshops, receptions and small meetings. In my organization, we do this in both English and Spanish because of the regions we mostly hire from.
- When families visit your campus, give them more than just a tour. Be sure to meet with staff and faculty members relevant to the student’s interests.
- Peer-to-Peer Marketing Presentation: A 17-year-old wants to get the scoop from a 19-year-old. So arrange for high school visitors to receive personal tours and certificates from your current undergraduates, preferably in a “Student am Ambassador” program of your own creativity and determination.
Don’t take anything for granted. Everywhere and everywhere, show and explain why You are It is a good choice and a mutual fit.
Encourage “questionable” communication. If your only interaction with the student’s family is when there is a problem (real or perceived), then you have not created a supportive and trusting relationship. Good marketing isn’t so much about selling your merchandise as it is about identifying the needs you can satisfy in the audience. Students search for the “right” campus and specialization for them. Their success (academic, mental, social) is an ongoing project.
As administrators, we work hard to retain students, with increasingly program tracking and expert support staff. But as they deal with the financial, emotional and academic aspects of a student’s situation, our systems often ignore the all-important family dimension.
If you are recruiting the family and not just the student, you should keep the family and not just the student. Here are some helpful tactics to this end:
- Most institutions have a parent union, usually willing to work with different academic departments and faculties. Ask for that group’s help when your unit is planning a meeting, a social media campaign, or even a back door with families.
- Some disciplines have established parental councils or advisory groups. Listening to their questions, concerns, and expectations can help you better serve your students. In return, you can offer practical information and help, such as simple study tips, to make student and teacher lives easier.
- Involve parents outside of bureaucratic channels. Have some administrators, faculty, and university representatives monitor parent groups on Facebook, other social media, and Reddit pages associated with your campus. Join us and give advice, engage in conversations, and spread information. The message you want to send is “We can help students succeed while stimulating their maturity through the college experience.”
Help with such a process rather than leave it to chance. By building a bridge of trust for parents, when concerns arise, the goodwill you have established will make it easier to resolve the issue and avoid escalation.
What do you do when an angry parent calls? As Dean, 95 percent of my interactions with my parents have been positive. They need information, clarification, help and advice. And we offer it – within the limits of Ferpa.
Then there’s the other five percent.
Almost always, the negative interaction would spoil before I even spoke to the parents. They are unhappy, even angry, about something that has happened (or allegedly happened) to their child and they want it Immediate action Often the specific action they have already formulated in their mind.
As an admin, I follow a best practice script:
- Verify the facts of the case as seen by the parents. Even if something doesn’t seem right or if they are asking for an impossibility, don’t give a quick opinion. Hear them. Make sure they know that someone appreciates their concerns.
- Do your own investigation. Unless it’s an actual emergency, politely say a copy of, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Let me look into it, and I’ll call you back as soon as possible.” Sometimes the solution comes fast: A parent says his son fails class due to “only a few absences,” but attendance records show the young man missed class for three weeks. Other times you have to dig deep.
- Explore solution scenarios. There are obviously instances where you have to tell a parent, “I think there might be some misunderstanding. Cody didn’t attend the next sessions of class….” Other times, working with the coach and with the staff, you can work with the coach to find a way To solve the problem: “Cody can still administer the B he needs for his scholarship if he completes all additional grade assignments and gets an A at his end.”
Please note: It is not your job to “fix” anything and everything. Some academic holes are hard to come out of. But many problems faced by families (parents, guardians, students) can be solved. I’ve been getting calls about not starting school because there isn’t enough money to buy a dress, or about not graduating on time because a certain class isn’t offered, or about needing a job on campus to pay the rent. In all of these cases, anyone in your organization can at least try to help. Two goals for you are to try, and to never lose your temper.
As a parent and teacher, I feel that college is the transitional area between home and an increasingly frightening and unforgiving world. Yes, some children grow up immune to the harsh reality and others already had a challenging childhood, including disease, poverty and abuse. We owe it to them all to pass on to mental and professional preparation for the future.
It will take time for them to progress to responsible adulthood. But it will happen more smoothly if we cooperate with their families to produce flexible, competent and professional citizens of the Republic.