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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 10/12/2010

Teaching college kids to 'pilot their own helicopter'

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov. He became Oberlin’s 14th president in 2007 after serving as vice president and general counsel at the University of Michigan for nearly a decade. In that position, he led the school’s legal defense of its admission policies, resulting in the 2003 Supreme Court decision recognizing the importance of student body diversity. He also served as acting solicitor in the Labor Department and as a trial attorney in the Criminal Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

By Marvin Krislov
The issue of how deeply involved parents of college students should be in their child’s campus life is a hot topic in higher education these days. As the fall term was beginning, media accounts highlighted efforts at some schools intended to push parents to drop their children off on campus and depart quickly and quietly. Now a recent survey of college admissions officers indicates that so-called helicopter parenting is on the rise.

As a college president and a parent, I find that approach—encouraging parents to do a drive-by, drop-off—an unrealistic approach to coping with moms and dads who seem to hover over their college student.

While too much parental involvement can be a problem, colleges and universities must acknowledge that parents have a crucial role to play in helping their child succeed.

Parents spend years preparing their child for college, and working to find ways to pay for their education. Those are major accomplishments. And taking your son or daughter to college for the first time is often emotionally wrenching. Parents deserve more than cursory thanks and a nod toward the door.

Instead, colleges need to communicate clearly how a healthy relationship between parents, students and the institution should work. We also need to explain that making that relationship work will enhance their child’s chances for success at college and in life.

Balance is the key. Parents should support their child, but not serve as their gofer or administrative assistant. They can do this by urging their son or daughter to learn how to navigate the college bureaucracy and campus life on their own. This is a vital part of the educational process. It includes allowing the student to handle issues relating to classes, housing, dining, roommates, and extracurricular activities such as athletics, clubs, and student organizations.

A good body of research indicates that college students have a better chance of succeeding academically and socially when they themselves discover and initiate contact with the campus offices and departments that offer services and resources for students.

We also know that the problem-solving skills students develop during the formative years at college are an important part of their education. Parents should encourage students to take responsibility for their own financial planning, for managing their time, and for setting limits on their personal behavior.

They can also explain to their child that college is more competitive than high school. Coping with the more intense atmosphere can be a major transition for new students who often have little experience with not getting their way. On campus, the student may encounter setbacks, such as not getting into a course because is it is full or not getting playing time on a sports team.

Learning to deal with this stepped-up level of competition is healthy for students. That may mean making sure to sign up for a class as soon as possible or meeting with the professor to see if an exception can be made. Or it could mean talking to the coach about what needs to be done to earn playing time.

It is essential that parents advise their son or daughter to make use of the student support resources most colleges and universities provide. Most colleges have advisers and administrators dedicated to helping students acclimate to college life and overcome setbacks or obstacles. There are many sources of advice and counsel that parents can suggest their child contact. These include the dean of students, professors, religious leaders, older students, including residence hall staffers, as well as campus offices that provide academic services such as tutoring, coaching on time management and study strategies.

Some students will need more assistance than others. Parents can help provide support for students with special needs by encouraging their son or daughter to go talk to the coordinator of disability services or the staff at the multicultural resource center or counseling service. Helping students learn how to communicate about issues they are facing and how to seek out assistance when necessary is a job that parents, as well as college faculty and staff should share.

Leaving home and starting college has always been an emotional experience for students and their parents. Helicopter parenting may be on the rise, but it is not new.

Through the years, some parents have stuck around campus trying to help their child adjust. But one of the most important things parents can do to help their college student make a successful adjustment is to strike a balance between direct intervention and letting their son or daughter learn to pilot their own helicopter.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 12, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Life, Guest Bloggers, Parents, Student Life  | Tags:  adjusting to college, college admissions, helicopter parents, marvin krislov, oberlin, oberlin college, parents, university of michigan  
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Why does the term "child" appear in a discussion of legal adults renting living quarters from a landlord who is also in many cases their employer? Do technical schools, most of which are not residential, have problems with helicopter parents?

College students are, with a few exceptions, legal adults. If the parents haven't raised them to look after themselves, then the parents deserve to worry.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | October 12, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Well, I have some mixed feelings about all of this. The room for error in one's college education is far more narrow than even a decade or so ago. One C in a course can keep a student out of grad school. Navigational tools (sure, mostly on campus), including occasional parental guidance, can be helpful. Situations vary. In these days of adjunct instructors / professors, students have to be more assertive at times, and 18 or 19 year old people are often less inclined to be so. For instance, one semester, our son who was a biology major (now out of grad school and working in his field) had an instructor for some biology course who was really unprepared for her new role (first teaching job postgrad). She often gave wrong information and was corrected by students. However, perhaps the worst offense was that she borrowed tests from other professors in the dept. that supposedly covered certain sections of the course, etc. Some of the information such tests was from old texts have non-corresponding chapters, uncovered information altogether, etc. Students complained to her to no avail. When the failure rate was nearing 60% of the class, we advised our son to gather other highly capable students from this class and visit the dean. The den did listen to this group, took notes, and said that she would look into the matter..... Well, the dean found justification for their concerns and positive changes happened.

We gave advice to our kids throughout college on occasion. We never felt like helicopter parents nor did they feel like chopper blades were in their faces. Guidance can be helpful and part of the maturation process too.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 12, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Marvin Krislov is the best! Now that he is president at Oberlin, I only wish that I could go back to undergrad all over again. Oberlin sure is lucky to have such a thoughtful, vibrant, accomplished, and approachable leader.

Posted by: wolvinb | October 14, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

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