Creating a Culture of Partnership for Parents and Family Programming at Colleges.


  • Author Patrick Heaton
  • Published April 12, 2018
  • Word count 4,182

Since the 1980s, parent and family member programming efforts have varied widely across the nation. To best prepare campus for the onset of parent and family involvement, the author suggest the following strategies:

  1. Assess parent and family needs

  2. Set program goals

  3. Secure resources

  4. Staff appropriately

  5. Create consistent messages that set limits and offer opportunities for appropriate involvement

  6. Communicate often

  7. Include parents and family members in crisis planning and programming

  8. Educate students on how to develop appropriate relationships with 
their parents

We believe these eight strategies are paramount when developing parent and family member programming and outreach.

Before the 1980s, parents were not identified as an influential campus population. Cohen (1985) states although parents were not a huge entity on campus, he found some individual parents did engage professionals look- ing for specific information and advice via phone, letter, or campus visit. However, twenty years later, the trend has changed greatly. Pennington observes: "The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have brought with them a new sense of parenting and a need for higher education professionals to reevaluate and readjust the ways in which they work and relate to students. Through partnerships with parents . . . , we can create additional learning opportunities and also increase the likelihood of student success" (2005, p. ix). Moreover, evolving editions of Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding College Years (Coburn and Treeger, 1988, 2003) also demonstrate how information for parents has changed over the decades. The initial edition of their book was one of the first publications for parents designed to help develop a better understanding of the issues their students and they would encounter throughout the college experience. These issues included letting go, getting involved, understanding college stress, and a general introduction to the campus culture. The later edition discussed many of the same issues and covered additional complex problems that students and their families must address such as relationships, alcohol and drug use, and date rape. The literature clearly displays the changes parents and family members have initiated over the past two decades. Parents and family are now beginning to better understand how those changes affect the practice of higher education. Because of these changes in higher education practice, staff and administrators continue to find programming and outreach for parents a necessity and an asset. Furthermore, new parental behaviors—often described as helicopter-like because of their hovering about campus—and newly defined family structures also illustrate this reality. The free-spirited students of the 1960s are now the helicopter parents of millennial students. To further illustrate these changes, Merriman’s (2006) survey of student affairs professionals found parent interactions have increased at a rate of 93 percent over the past five years. All of these combined variables drastically change the ways parents desire to be included in the educational process.

To accommodate and embrace the increase in parental involvement, programming and outreach have become positive means to connect with parents early in a student’s college experience, though some administrators argue that many parents are so fully engaged that their involvement suspends or retards the development of their children. Woollen (2005) concurs by citing how some parents of today’s college students have surpassed appropriate involvement levels and can be defined as intrusive. They defined such intrusive behaviors as parents editing college papers, com- plaining to faculty about course or assignment grades, contacting academic advisors about class times, and attending career fairs with their students. Additionally, the introduction and proliferation of cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, and the like perpetuate these acts, causing administrators to view students and parents or family members as seemingly attached via their technological umbilical cord. Thus, during a medical visit it is not unusual for a student to hand his or her cell phone to a health center doc- tor saying, "My mother wants to discuss this with you." Technology connects parents and family members to campus in ways never experienced before, and often parents and family members are apprised of their son’s or daughter’s situation on campus before staff and administrators. At times, these interactions make it difficult for staff to appropriately respond to situations or to the student(s) involved without emotional external influences.

Mullendore, Banahan, and Ramsey (2005) predicted that student affairs professionals would be most effective if they could be proactive when working with the new models, assumptions, and expectations of parents and family members. Merriman (2006, p. 48) noted, "Parents and parent expectations are redefining the work of student affairs professionals as they expect institutions to respond to all of their concerns, protect their students, and expeditiously resolve any crisis they encounter." In response to these new parent expectations, staff and administrators across the nation continue to develop more and more opportunities for parent and family involvement. This chapter will describe some of the programming and outreach efforts common on college and university campuses, such as orientation, parent-family weekend, little siblings’ weekends and events, opening convocation and graduation ceremonies, electronic outreach and communication, and parent associations.


Including parents and family members in campus orientation programs is paramount. Jacobs and With (2002) concur, observing that parents who are included in the orientation process view their involvement as an illustration of their partnership in the education of their child. Furthermore, Mullendore and Banahan (2005) suggest that campus administrators should begin outreach to parents and families early, in order to channel their energies into positive interactions. Moreover, Hatch (2003) believes parental support has been known to influence student success, and Turrentine, Schnure, Ostroth, and Ward-Roof (2000) assert that student expectations can be influenced by parental beliefs. Orientation programs are clear opportunities to include, engage, and partner with parents and family members in their students’ educational process and assist the student, parent, family members, and cam- pus staff in establishing expectations for involvement.

Jacobs and With (2002) observe that parents must be provided with valuable campus information so they can assist their students generally. Furthermore, the most recently published National Orientation Directors Association Databank (Strumpf, 2000) revealed that 100 percent of the institutions who responded offered some type of parent orientation program in conjunction with or separately from student orientation. Although the delivery and timing of the program varied by institution, the responses suggest that including parents and families in the orientation process has been a common practice for many years.

When implementing parent orientation programs, Austin (2003) found that two specific considerations need to be addressed: content and structure. Ward-Roof (2005) suggests implementing the following steps when developing an orientation program. First, staff must assess the parent-family population to determine their needs. Characteristics such as number of first-generation, legacy, ethnic diversity, and single-parent status can affect the program offerings. Second, decisions need to be made about the duration of the programming offered. Parents of traditional eighteen- to twenty- year-old students often will attend one- to two-day orientation programs with their students, whereas family members of nontraditional students may be more likely to attend a weekend or evening program. Other models include online resources, a series of meetings, week-long events, written information, or shorter time frames of interactions. The third step is deter- mining when the program will be offered and what content should be included. Timing for orientation programs is typically preterm, summer, fall, spring, or a hybrid of these types. Campus resources and parent-family needs and will also need to be considered when setting suitable times for parent-family members’ orientation programs.

Austin (2003) suggests that staff members working in the orientation program should convey knowledge about and genuine interest in parent-family involvement. Furthermore, the following topics should be addressed during the programming: handling crisis, decreasing levels of parental control, challenges of renegotiating roles, ways for parents to deal with their own life changes, understanding of academic year and stresses, time management, redefining participation in each other’s lives, vehicles to discuss changes and parent-family reactions, campus tours, policy and procedure, programs, student life concerns, financial issues, opportunities to meet campus community, information about first-year (and subsequent year) programming, and information about campus environment and surrounding areas. Other specific topics we suggest including are a better understanding of the Family Education Rights and Privilege Act (FERPA) and other specific laws and policies of the state and institution; expectations for appropriate involvement; and opportunities to meet and interact with current students, parents and family members of current students, and community members. In addition, we recommend discussing when members of the institution will contact par- ents and family members (such as alcohol violations, suicide attempts, or other grave situations) and what parents and family members can do if they are concerned about their children.

Mental health issues should also be a topic for consideration within orientation programming. Educating parents and family members about mental health issues, resources, and realities is a necessity. Often, parents and family members of incoming students believe a change in environment will erase current mental health issues. Orientation is an optimal time for encouraging parents and family members to have conversations about medication, counseling, and other mental health needs in order to help their sons or daughters be successful.

Other options for orientation programs include parent-family hand- books or calendars. These can be designed to remind parents about the messages and expectations the campus community has for their involvement. Furthermore, the publications can assist parents with a better understand- ing of campus policy and practice, as well as expectations for the students during the year. Parent-family handbooks or calendars are also a way to empower parents and families to encourage their students’ learning about and use of campus resources. Current examples are publications that out- line specific situations and contacts where parents and family members should send their students. For instance, instead of calling the president’s office about a roommate situation, the publication might offer tips for par- ents as their children resolve issues, including phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other contact information for housing staff members who are more skilled at addressing these specific issues.

Web sites are another positive way to program for parents before and after orientation programs. Little information is static in today’s technological world. Using web sites that link parents and family members to campus resources enables staff to offer them the latest information. In times of crisis, web sites are also excellent vehicles for quickly informing parents and family members about campus news and safety tips.

Survey Results

Much of the programming being offered to parents and other family members is guided by institutional resources, philosophy toward parent engagement, and desired outcomes. Wanting to better understand the breadth and depth of programming being offered on today’s campuses, we surveyed institutions about best practices and challenges in this area. An invitation to complete a thirteen-question online survey was distributed by e-mail to college and university administrators belonging to American College and University Housing Officers International (ACUHO-I) and National Orientation Directors Association (NODA). This invitation yielded 101 responses, 88 of which were from nonduplicate institutions. Controlling for institutions with multiple respondents, 74.26 percent of the participants were from public institutions and 25.74 percent from private institutions. When asked to identify their institution as being primarily residential or commuter, representation was 66.34 percent and 38.61 percent, respectively.

When asked to identify audiences targeted through parent-family programming, 95.56 percent of respondents named parents, 47.78 percent named guardians, and 34.44 percent named extended family. Less often mentioned were grandparents (21.11 percent), spouses (21.11 percent), siblings (20 percent), and partners (18.89 percent). The least targeted audiences were children (11 percent) and friends (10 percent) of students. When respondents were asked to name the topics covered in parent-family

orientation programs, most commonly identified were safety (85.06 per- cent), housing (81.61 percent), opportunities to interact with administrators (78.16 percent), financial aid (78.16 percent), health and counseling services (77.01 percent), student involvement (77.01 percent), social adjustment (75.86 percent), family role in student transition (74.71 per- cent), Federal Education Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) (73.56 percent), academic expectations (72.41 percent), and food service (71.26 percent). In contrast, the topics least commonly covered included opportunities to interact with alumni (17.24 percent), nonacademic honor policies (14.94 percent), information about the local community (26.44 percent), interactions with parents of current students (28.74 percent), academic honor codes (29.89 percent), and opportunities to interact with faculty (51.72 per- cent). When asked which services and programs were offered beyond orientation, respondents most commonly mentioned parent-family web sites (65.88 percent), parent-family weekends (60 percent), electronic newsletters (57.65 percent), handbooks (44.71 percent), associations or advisory boards (42.35 percent), and calendars (37.65 percent). Least frequently mentioned were professional and social networking (15.29 percent), e-mail listservs (18.8 percent), and printed newsletters (28.24 percent).

Respondents were also asked to identify institutional best practices in programming for parents and family members. As the answers to that question were analyzed, three significant themes emerged. Frequently cited as important was the shift toward viewing parents as stakeholders in the student experience. One respondent wrote, "The philosophy behind our parent/family program is that we view them as partners, not helicopter parents or people who need to let go. We have found that by empowering parents/families with resources we all can spend our time together focusing on student success, instead of telling parents/families what they cannot do." The idea of institutional collaboration was also frequently mentioned. Viewing parent program- ming as a shared responsibility that requires buy-in from multiple academic and student affairs units was noted to be a successful technique for diffusing costs, increasing programming contacts, and addressing the holistic develop- mental needs of students. The final best practice to emerge as a theme in survey responses was the use of electronic publications and web sites as cost-efficient and flexible ways to communicate with parents and extended family members.

In addition to best practices, respondents always mentioned several challenges they have faced in parent programming. The most significant of these challenges seems to be the lack of funding and staff support: the absence of an appropriate level of resources, money, or staffing was mentioned by 74 percent of respondents. Other challenges included addressing the widely diverse needs of parents, disconnect between institutional strategic priorities and the philosophy behind parent programming, and geo- graphic distance between the institution and some students’ families.

Electronic Outreach and Communication

As evident in the survey, technology can be an effective way to reach parents and family members, because most are now somewhat familiar with navigating web pages, downloading newsletters, or registering for a listserv. Often during these interactions administrators will hear parents and family members refer to a web page, stating they were not able to find the information online, or the web page and newsletter offered conflicting information. As parents and family members become technologically savvy, more information has been moved to formats accessible through the Internet, such as electronic newsletters, informative and question-oriented listservs, webcams showing the campus or a particular event on campus, online parent-family surveys, registration information for parent-family events, and e-mail communications. Although technology is an effective way to release volumes of information to parents and family members and is accessible twenty-four hours a day, those who use the technology often demand answers and feedback more quickly. To illustrate this concept, Merriman’s (2006) research identifies technology as a reason for increased parental involvement, now that parents have continuous access to information and contact with their students. Consistent with this research, we have received e-mail communications from a parent or family member at 2:00 a.m. demanding resolution to a situation by 8:00 a.m.

In spite of these drawbacks, providing information electronically to par- ents and family members can be a cost-saving measure. The new challenge for staff and administrators is maintaining the content and quickly answer- ing the questions of parents and family members who use the Internet to communicate and obtain up-to-date information.

Parent-Family Weekends

Parent-family weekends provide an excellent opportunity for parents and family members to visit and engage with their students’ college environment; however, the timing of these weekends is important. The delicate balance allows students (especially new students) enough time to adjust to their campus environment and also gives parents and family members enough time to adjust to their home environment without their son or daughter.

In addition, providing a fulfilling program can only benefit the campus and the parents’ and families’ relationships. Programs for a parent-family weekend can be scheduled for one weekend, a series of weekends, or through a variety of different events. Models include programming around a large event such as a sporting event or campus tradition, offering a series of weekends during fall and spring terms, or labeling a series of artistic or campus events as a parent-family weekend. Assessing the needs and desires of parents in light of campus resources is the best way to discover which model would be most appropriate for an institution. Many campus staff have trouble deciding how centralized parent-family weekends should be— they want to include all aspects of campus, but don’t want to sponsor traditional organization events. One example of this challenge is to include individual registered student organization programming during the formal schedule along with campus office and departmental programming even though staff members have little knowledge about the activities offered. Those involved with planning the weekends are charged with weighing the centralization of weekend events and the inclusion of the campus with the outcomes of the programming offered to best decide what should be included.

Fees are another consideration for parent-family weekends. Many institutions find it necessary to charge participants for meals, tours, and space, whereas others gather the resources within the established budget to cover the costs associated with the events.

Nonetheless, parent-family weekends are opportunities for campus staff and administration to showcase student achievement, research, entertainment, resources, campus awards, and unique campus traditions. In addition, parents and family members should have opportunities to interact with faculty and staff, tour campus facilities, and meet those who are important to their son or daughter. These interactions are good times to emphasize the messages outlined in orientation and help parents and family members continue to develop positive relationships with staff, faculty, and administrators.

Younger Siblings Events

Programming for siblings can be a stand-alone event or intertwined with other offerings such as orientation or parent-family weekend. Regardless of the type of program format, similarities exist among offerings. Typical activities included in a younger siblings event might be interactions with the institution mascot, book clubs, recreation time, motivational speakers on setting goals for college attendance, sporting events, tours, visits to class- rooms, and taking advantage of the unique features of an institution. Ultimately, programming for siblings is a great way to positively influence family commitment to an institution specifically for the student in attendance and in the future for the sibling at the programming.

Opening Convocation and Graduation

Traditional ceremonies are excellent opportunities for parents and family members to get involved in their students’ campus lives. Many institutions offer opening convocations as a way for parents and family members to acknowledge the separation of the family unit. The inspiration and build- ing of a class are a means by which members of the community gather together to celebrate the beginning of a new phase of life, often with their parents and family members supporting them through the process. Convo- cations typically include a welcome to the community; an explanation of

culture and rituals; a celebration of the beginning of college; an opportunity to meet faculty, staff, and peer students; and motivational words to inspire achievement.

Graduation ceremonies are phenomenal ways for parents and family members to celebrate the accomplishments of their students with the cam- pus community. These typically traditional ceremonies signify the end of college and the beginning of the students’ transition into their next phase of life. Similar to the opening convocation, these ceremonies recognize the parents and family members as a significant source of support and include a celebration of the accomplishments of the graduates.

Parent Associations

Regardless of the type of parent-family programming being developed, the common denominator is to establish a set of agreed-upon messages for parents and family members and consistently emphasize those messages throughout the programming and outreach. Ultimately, we believe that par- ents, staff, and administrators hold the same goals for the students: to mature and be empowered to become a positive force in a global society. It is our opinion that engaging programming opportunities for and effective outreach to parents and family members enables the development and emphasis of appropriate involvement for parents.

Hurt and others (2003) studied how student affairs administrators spent their time. They discovered that 23 percent of their time was spent communicating, and this included communication with family members of both current and prospective students. In light of that finding, the follow- ing are suggestions for programming to parents and family members.

  1. Assess parent and family needs. First and foremost, take the time to find out who the parents and family members are and what they need. Assessing the population will enable the staff to best design programming for the unique population at your institution. Assessment can take place during current programming, more formally through surveys developed and implemented by institutional research staff, or qualitatively when discussing issues with parents and family members. Assessment is discussed in greater detail in Chapter Six.

  2. Set program and outreach goals. Regardless of the type of program- ming or outreach offered, goals should be established and revisited often. In addition, these goals should align with the mission of the institution and be widely accepted by parents and family members.

  3. Secure resources. Strong programming and outreach need appropriate resources. Assess what is needed and find means to secure the needed resources through fees, campus resources, or outside sponsorship.

  4. Staff appropriately. Parents and family members need a tremendous amount of support and guidance. Be sure that staffing exists and is responsive to the needs of the parents and family members. Adequate staffing can assist the parents and family members in channeling their energies and emotions appropriately when issues arise.

  5. Communicate often. Staff cannot overcommunicate with parents and family members. Develop the best means for communicating with families—whether electronically or through newsletters or mailings—and use them for all messages.

  6. Use programming to educate students about building appropriate relationships with their parents and family members. Build these discussions into major entry points (such as orientation, move-in weekend, or FYE classes) to educate students on the best ways to include their parents and families in their college lives. Help them develop positive and appropriate relation- ships before those relationships become challenged by an untoward event or a crisis.

Programming for parents and family members is an optimal time for staff to partner with them to embrace the positive growth and development of students. Often staff members find their role of programming and out- reach for parents and family members in the campus community challenging as they continue to develop new opportunities to appropriately include parents and family members on campus. We believe that engaging parents and families in programming and outreach is well worth the effort. Through these efforts the institution is able to set expectations, define relationships, and involve parents and family members as partners for student success.


Austin, D. "The Role of Family Influence on Student Success." In J. A. Ward-Roof and C. Hatch (eds.), Designing Successful Transitions: A Guide for Orienting Students to College. Monograph no. 13. Columbia, S.C.: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 2003.

Coburn, K. L., and Treeger, M. L. Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Today’s College Experiences. Bethesda, Md.: Adler and Adler, 1988.

Coburn, K. L., and Treeger, M. L. Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Today’s College Experiences. (4th ed.) New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Cohen, R. D. "From In Loco Parentis to Auxilio Parentum." In R. Cohen (ed.), Working with Parents of College Students. New Directions for Student Services, no. 32. San Fran- cisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.

Hatch, C. "Orienting Nontraditional Students to College: Creating Opportunities, Support- ing Success." In J. A. Ward-Roof and C. Hatch (eds.), Designing Successful Transitions: A Guide for Orienting Students to College. Monograph no. 13. Columbia, S.C.: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 2003.

Hurt, J. B., and others. "How Student Affairs Administrators Spend Their Time: Differences by Institutional Setting." College Student Affairs Journal, 2003, 23(1), 7–26.

Jacobs, B. C., and With, E. A. "Orientation’s Role in Addressing the Developmental Stages of Parents." Journal of College Orientation and Transition, 2002, 9(2), 37–42.

Merriman, L. S. "Best Practices for Managing Parent Concerns: A Mixed Methods Study of Student Affairs Practice at Doctoral Research Institutions." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Education, University of California, Los Angeles, 2006.

Mullendore, R. H., and Banahan, L. A. "Channeling Parent Energy and Reaping the Ben- efits." In K. Keppler, R. H. Mullendore, and A. Carey (eds.), Partnering with the Par- ents of Today’s College Students. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 2005.

Mullendore, R. H., Banahan, L. A., and Ramsey, J. L. "Developing a Partnership with Today’s College Parents." In K. Keppler, R. H. Mullendore, and A. Carey (eds.), Partnering with the Parents of Today’s College Students. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 2005.

Pennington, K. L. "Foreword." In K. Keppler, R. H. Mullendore, and A. Carey (eds.), Partnering with the Parents of Today’s College Students. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 2005.

Strumpf, G. NODA Databank. College Park, Md.: National Orientation Directors Association, 2000.

Dr. Patrick Heaton (Boston) has over 18 years of professional experience in higher education and extensive knowledge of how to partner with college student parents and family members to support university and student goals.

Article source:
This article has been viewed 402 times.

Rate article

Article comments

There are no posted comments.

Related articles