What Community College Administrators Should Know About Parental Involvement
August 2012, Volume 25, Number 8
By Colleen Eisenbeiser
Parents today are accustomed to participating in their students’ academic lives because they were encouraged to do so through the K-12 experience, which was influenced by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Many traditional college students are comfortable with the involved parenting style and welcome their parents’ support. Many college faculty and staff, though, express concern at the increased level of parental involvement. They consider components of the postsecondary experience to be autonomy and independence from parents. They are also aware, however, of the importance of student success and the need to consider new ways to increase student retention and completion rates.
A recent qualitative study explored the nature of parental involvement in the academic lives of their children, who are traditional community college students. Using a phenomenological design, 10 interviews were conducted with parents of traditional students attending a community college. From the data, three overlapping themes emerged: (1) parents consider the community college as an intermediate step; (2) they are committed to their children’s success; and (3) they perceive their involvement as a balancing act between encouraging independence and providing support. From this study, community college administrators and student services personnel could gain an understanding of the role of parental involvement to determine how it may be used in their strategies for improving student success.
Data from the 2004/06 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (2007) - which surveyed 14,900 students nationally, including 5,800 attending community colleges - reveal that approximately 45 percent of the students who entered community college in 2004 left college without completing a program (Brock, 2011; Horn, 2009; Provasnik & Planty, 2008). Furthermore, Long and Kurlaender (2009) conservatively estimate that community college students who aspire to a bachelor’s degree are 14.5 percent less likely to accomplish this within nine years than their counterparts who enter four-year colleges as freshmen.
Community College as Intermediate Step. A major theme of the current study underscores the idea of the community college as an intermediate step to a four-year college or university, and all parents in the study considered the community college as a step toward a four-year degree. Two recommendations emanate from this finding. First, community college administrators and student services staff must convey to parents and students, as soon as possible, the need for early decisions about programs of study and transfer institutions to allow for careful planning and appropriate course selection. They must also simultaneously work closely with their counterparts at four-year colleges to ensure that students have the opportunity to transfer successfully and without loss of credit. Keeping parents and students apprised of all that transferring entails and assisting them through the process is critical if students’ educational goals are to be achieved in a timely and cost-efficient manner.
A second recommendation related to the theme of the community college as an intermediate step is that parents should be made aware that there are viable educational options to earning a four-year degree. Not all programs at the community college are intended for transfer; in fact, many certificates and associate degrees are considered career oriented and have been designed in response to community labor market demands (Bueschel, 2009; Center on Education and the Workforce, 2008; Comey, 2010). Community college administrators and student services staff should consider ways to clarify to students and parents the available degree and certificate options and the pathways that each encompasses. Parents and students should also be informed of reports from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009) which indicate that by 2018, jobs for those with a bachelor’s degree will increase by 16.6 percent, those with an associate’s degree by 19.1 percent, and those with workforce certificates by 13.2 percent, and that six of the 10 occupations with the greatest anticipated employment growth require less than an associate’s degree. In addition, they should be acquainted with income data that demonstrate further education beyond an associate’s degree does not always equate to a higher salary (Carnevale, Strohl, & Smith, 2009).
Determining an Appropriate Level of Parental Involvement. Traditional students in college today, and their parents, are the first to have been influenced by NCLB since elementary school. It is, therefore, not surprising that parents of this student population appear more involved to college student services staff (Cutright, 2008; Henning, 2007; Merriman, 2007; Ward-Roof et al., 2008), nor should it be surprising that the parents interviewed feel perplexed as they struggle to determine the appropriate level of involvement. Overall, the parents of traditional community college students who participated in this study consider their involvement in their children’s academic lives to be for the purpose of support. They characterized their involvement as limited and described helping their children “navigate the process.” Nearly all these parents accompanied their children the first time they met with an advisor; most still assist with course selection, either by reminding their children to meet with the advisor or by working with their children to plan schedules around commuting, employment, and public transportation schedules. This finding supports that of Howe and Strauss (2007), who reported that 70 percent of the parents of college students surveyed participated in their students’ course selection. Beyond the initial meeting with an advisor and semester course selection, and apart from the casual involvement that stems from informal daily conversation, most of the parents become involved only upon the request of their children. They appear to recognize how much involvement is needed because, as many mentioned, they know their children.
Some college staff associate parental involvement with the stereotype of the helicopter parent, assuming they are hovering over their children, hindering their maturation and independence (Henning, 2007). However, this study revealed that parents have the same goal of academic success for their students as the college staff. In the quest to demonstrate enhanced student success by increasing retention and graduation rates, community college administrators should consider the role of parents in their programs. That is not to say that faculty and college staff should begin calling home when a student is late with an assignment or that parents should feel they have a right to call a professor to discuss a grade on an essay. Indeed, during interviews for this study, the parents’ responses did not express any intention to be involved at that level. Yet college administrators may wish to consider purposefully providing parents who wish to be supportive with easily accessible information about important dates and processes, as well as practical strategies through workshops or Web pages on topics of concern, such as transfer of credit. They may wish to examine practices that would allow parents to be consistently informed in a proactive manner about expectations at the college level, systems and processes of two- and four-year institutions, and ways to support students while imbuing independence.
Balancing Parental Support and Student Independence. For parents, the balancing act between providing support and allowing independence is a natural consequence that starts early. Though the parents interviewed feel their involvement, which they describe as waning gradually through middle and high school, is appropriate, several parents expressed an interest in determining if they were involved to the appropriate degree. In addition, all of the parents were experiencing some amount of struggle between being supportive and letting go, thereby spurring their children’s independence.
The parents’ desire for their children to be independent and on a successful path toward bachelor’s degrees is consistent with Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) vectors of progressing through autonomy toward interdependence and establishing purpose, elements of their theory of student development which is followed by most student services personnel (Taub, 2008; Ullom & Faulkner, 2005). Most of the parents interviewed mentioned recognizing more maturity in these areas in their children since they had begun college. This implies that Chickering and Reisser’s theory of student development is not incompatible with parental involvement; taken further, educators could infer that parental involvement, in a waning phase, contributes to student development. Parents are questioning their own level of participation, which suggests they would welcome some guidance about what their role should be at this stage. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the college administration or student services staff to consider providing resources to address this need.
This study demonstrated that parents of community college students are involved in their children’s academic lives, though at a decreased level than in their children’s K-12 experiences. They anticipate that their involvement will continue to diminish as their children move to a four-year institution. They consider that their role is to provide support for their children and to be a resource. They want their children to continue to mature and become more independent. The data suggest that the purpose of their involvement is to assist their children in achieving academic success, an objective that aligns with the mission of higher education. Therefore, it behooves community college administrators to consider parental involvement as they address their strategies for improving student success.
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Colleen Eisenbeiser is director of the TEACH Institute and Parenting Center at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.