Why two-year colleges are engaging parents

Lake Superior College

Hovering for information

Community colleges -- long the choice of commuter students, part-timers and cash-strapped teens living with their parents -- usually haven't needed to roll out the welcome mat for Mom & Dad.

But that's changing.

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In an unusual move, several two-year institutions in Minnesota have started parent orientations in the past few years as a way to manage hovering "helicopter parents"  -- but also help them keep their sons and daughters in school. They appear to be at the tip of a national trend that, though undocumented, has already caught the eye of education leaders.

"There's a growing sense nationally that if we want students to be successful, there needs to be more student-parent engagement," said Scott R. Olson, interim vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

It was once an unusual sight to see parents tagging along as their kids saw advisers, bought textbooks and learned the ropes at Lake Superior College in Duluth -- or any other two-year college, for that matter. After all, most students at such colleges usually live nearby and aren't exactly severing their ties with Mom & Dad.

But a few years ago, Lake Superior started noticing a couple of changes.

Know the ropes, Mom & Dad

Lake Superior's Parent Day includes LSC-made videos showing the three types of problematic parents:

Parents were becoming more consumer-oriented and started asking a lot of questions. Some began calling the college repeatedly, demanding information -- such as grades -- that data privacy laws prevented staffers from giving out.

"It almost got confrontational at times," recalled Jean Stojevich, the college's registrar and financial aid director.

They also noticed a growing national concern about college retention rates. (About 55 percent of full-time students graduate on average from two-year colleges, and that number is much lower for part-timers.) 

Whereas a decade ago the push was to give students a college opportunity, education officials now realize that accessibility to education "is an empty promise" to students if it doesn't come with a support network, said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

So three years ago, Lake Superior developed a day-long program that would target the problematic issues for parents -- things like financial aid and the deadline for adding and dropping courses -- and help them feel more connected to the college and their student's education.

We were challenged by parents who were trying to help, but who didn’t know how to be helpful.

- Linda Beer, South Central’s dean of student affairs, describing the impetus for Parent Day

About a quarter of the college's freshman population attends the voluntary program each year. Parents show up for the day to learn about all the nuts and bolts of college -- some of them through a "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" game-show quiz format.

"It's silly but fun," Stojevich said.

And what happened later on when classes finally started?

"Things were busy, but not that frenzy with panic," Stojevich said. "It was because of Parent Day."

South Central College in Faribault and North Mankato had its own reasons for snagging parents. About five years ago it transformed itself from a technical college -- where students usually arrived knowing exactly what they wanted to do -- into a comprehensive college, where many students show up undecided about their career plans. (Having less focus often makes it tougher to graduate.)

So last year South Central hosted its first half-day program. Parents stayed with the students for everything but a seminar on campus technology, during which they went through a separate information session.

Giving parents a heads-up on what to expect in college helps them deal with potential crises, said Linda Beer, South Central's dean of student affairs. For them, college is the first time that their student will be the only source of information about how school is going -- and that source may be unreliable.

"We were challenged by parents who were trying to help, but who didn’t know how to be helpful," Beer said. "Maybe their student comes home and says, 'College is stupid.' It may be codeword for 'I took too many classes,' or 'I'm worried about financial aid.'" Without help -- even if it's just the phone number to a college counselor, "maybe they can’t decode that message."

Lake Superior College

Need a Lifeline?

That's because many parents of community college students have never been to college themselves, and so have no experience with the system and its challenges. Or if they have, things have changed a lot in the decades since.

"Our procedures are not transparent, not easy to understand," said George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Linda Loudermill of Brooklyn Park said she found Lake Superior's program invaluable for her and her 18-year-old son, who has to deal with a learning disability when he attends this fall.

"We had no clue walking in" about how the college functioned, she said, and sought information about financial aid and the support her son could receive. She also has a 17-year-old who's getting ready for college next year, so Loudermill will be on the lookout for a parent orientation then, too.

(She admitted, by the way, to being a bit of a drill instructor.)

State education officials say less elaborate programs are available at North Hennepin Community College and Alexandria Technical and Community College. It's unclear just how many other colleges have joined them across the country, because education officials say the movement is new, and they have only anecdotal information.

But Lake Superior says it has no problem filling its orientation program, and South Central says it's expecting its program to quadruple this year.

In any case, Gregg Raisanen, Alexandria's dean of academic affairs, echoed national education officials when he said, "You're going to see more of this."