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September 30, 2004

Now That the Kids are Gone, What’s a Parent to Do?

A month into the semester, students are settling into college life. Parents are left to wonder how their offspring are faring. Are they in good health? How are their grades? Are they safe on campus? Will they drink alcohol and do drugs?

Pitt and other colleges and universities are offering more programs, many nestled in freshman orientation sessions, to better inform parents about everything from university holidays and financial aid deadlines to the availability of counseling services. No longer just easing student angst, schools such as Pitt now offer an information session, “Letting Go,” to calm parents’ jitters. And to meet their information needs, Pitt has devoted web sites and publications to advise parents on University deadlines and school services.

A new breed of parents, dubbed “millennial parents,” “boomer parents” or “helicopters” — because they hover — just want to know more and do more, according to Pitt officials and others. “Today’s parents are much less likely to ‘cut the apron strings,’ compared to parents a generation ago”, said Brenda Pardini, associate vice president for Student Affairs at Pitt-Johnson. “They’re very involved in their children’s lives, they’re interested in all kinds of things, from using public transportation, to how do I reach my kid,” she said.

Increased parental interest starts before the student arrive. According to Betsy Porter, Pittsburgh campus Admissions and Financial Aid director, there has been a significant increase in parental involvement in the college selection process. During her 35 years in college admission, Porter said the increase in parental involvement has been incremental. “It’s a good thing,” she said of the trend.

This crop of students – the generation after Generation X — has a closer relationship with their parents and parents are more involved with them, said James Cox, director of the Pitt’s Counseling Center. “We try to accommodate them as much as possible,” Cox said. “We talk to parents and ease their anxiety around their children’s welfare without violating a person’s confidentiality.”

More parents call the Pittsburgh campus Counseling Center to check whether or not their children have been seen by a counselor or are generally following up, according to Cox. But Pitt is bound by state law not to release counseling information to anyone unless the student poses a danger to himself/herself or somebody else, he said.

As reluctant as parents may be to cut the apron strings, federal law does that for them. At age 18, students legally are adults entitled to privacy.

“We want to respect the parents’ role, but they also need to know that students are now on their own, and that college is not like high school where the class time accounts for the whole day,” said Stephanie Thomas, director of Student Activities at the Titusville campus. “Students control their own schedules for most of the time and need to find out what works for them.”

The Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA), also known as the Buckley Amendment, protects the privacy of student records such as files, documents and transcripts. However, there are exceptions to the law: Parents of a dependent student, defined as a financial dependent according to the IRS, can access a student’s academic record without permission from the student. Also, school officials with legitimate educational interests can access student educational records without notification.

Parents will be notified if their children are caught by the authorities for underage drinking – again, the law determines this. In Pennsylvania, the legal age for drinking is 21. According to Ted Fritz, associate general counsel for the University, if the student is under age 21, the University generally notifies the parent of offenses involving drugs and alcohol.

Given the limitations of what personal information parents can gather about their children, counselors suggest good communication in the family and familiarity with University services. The University offers a number of programs and information sources to parents including a “Letting Go” seminar for parents at the Oakland campus and web sites such as “for parents only” and “parents.” The information ranges from the college selection process to what hotels are available in Oakland to a suggested parent-reading list with such titles as, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide for the College Years.”

Other parent information programs at Pitt campuses include:

UPG Families: Six years ago, Pitt-Greensburg President Frank A. Cassell addressed the role of parents whose child is away at college. He formed a steering committee of 14 parents, an aunt and a guardian of then-UPG students to develop a parents’ support group. From that committee’s recommendations emerged the UPG Families program, with the mission “to help families help their students grow, succeed and graduate from UPG.”

UPG Families mails out two newsletters a year directed toward parents and guardians, maintains a web page that addresses frequently asked questions and sends out a weekly electronic mailing with announcements of campus events, deadlines for registration and applications for scholarships, special bulletins and topics of concern.

“It starts at our summer orientation and academic registration (SOAR) program,” said UPG staff member Karen Gavula, who is the designated contact person for UPG Families. “We have a SOAR session called “Letting Go” where we provide all kinds of information to the parents on how to let go – but also stay in touch.”

Gavula gets a handful of phone calls and about 10-12 e-mails a term from parents. “Most of these are informational questions: When is the campus closed for holidays? Is there transportation from campus to stores and the bus station? Where can a student get his or her car repaired?” she said. The occasional crisis call from a panicked parent comes in, which Gavula directs to the appropriate campus official.

“Mostly, our communication by phone or through the e-mail connection is more a reassurance service for parents that their questions are important and not ignored,” Gavula said. Sometimes e-mail messages include feedback from parents that is shared with other parents through weekly electronic mailing, she said. Parents who have previous experience with college-aged kids often have good advice for the “freshman parents.”


Each summer, UPJ holds four orientation sessions that, along with student sessions, provide information for parents of new students, Pardini said.

“Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, the Registrar, a whole host of offices contribute to the sessions for parents and provide their phone numbers and e-mail addresses,” she said. “Parents seem to take advantage of that once they’ve met representatives face-to-face. They’re certainly not afraid to contact us.”

Part of orientation also includes an information fair, where parents can browse all of the campus’s promotional literature to pick up the information they need.

“Parents want to be informed, and they seem to respond favorably to these sessions,” she said. “When a question arises that falls under the Buckley Amendment, for example, we explain the procedure for a student who wishes to waive the rights and urge the parents to talk to the student about doing this.”


UPT holds parents-only info sessions during its orientation. “We break into small groups of parents, with a residence hall assistant, staff members from our office and a faculty member,” Thomas said. “We talk about ‘letting go,’ we share contact information, we talk about processes and we offer advice.” UPT also prints an occasional newsletter, featuring advice on financial aid, rules on liability for dormitory damages, health center advice about immunizations and recognizing eating disorder symptoms, as well as the typical information on student activities, deadlines, blood drives, campus closings and other announcements. The newsletter also highlights UPT programs like study abroad and workshops on becoming familiar with campus library resources.

“We do find that once parents are informed they often help promote some of the programs by telling their children about them,” Thomas said.


Rhett Kennedy, associate dean of Student Affairs and director of Residential Life and Housing, said that Pitt-Bradford holds special parents’ sessions at summer orientation that normally are well-attended. “We bring in a student panel to speak to the parents and answer their questions as part of this,” Kennedy said. “They’re the ones who can tell parents what college is really like, and can answer questions.”

At the orientation, Bradford staff distributes a newsletter with tips for students moving to campus, such as how much storage space is available in the dorms, what is and is not permitted and size requirements for items such as refrigerators and microwaves.

“We also use this as a tool to get parents and family members to sign up for the e-mailed monthly newsletter with information of what to expect during the first semester,” Kennedy said. The newsletter covers themes such as how to deal with homesickness, how to handle poor grades, how to get the student referred for help and what advice parents should give to guide a student in choosing a major.

Parents who miss the orientation still are contacted, he said. “We mail to the homes a Parent Handbook, updated each year, which contains everything from important dates, the academic calendar, deadlines and information on student aid, to tips on what students who bring a car to campus can expect, and information on hotels and special events like alumni weekend,” Kennedy said.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 3

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