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Helicopters and Trailblazers


When I went to college, my Dad drove me eight hours to the college of my choice and dropped me at the curb with one big suitcase. I moved in with a roommate I didn’t know and started classes. About once a month, I used the one pay phone on the floor to place a collect call to home. At Thanksgiving, I went to see my grandmother because it was easier to find a carpool going her way. I didn’t have a car of my own until I had a job of my own after graduation. My parents were neither cruel nor poor. It was 1974. That was the way “everybody” I knew managed college and family.

Decades later things have changed. Delays in the age of education completion, marriage, and family formation have led to a new developmental stage – emerging adulthood. Developments in communication technology have made it easy for students and families to communicate by text, voice, and video regardless of their geographic separation. And college is now a much more significant investment for students and their families.

Even though I chose a private religiously affiliated college, I was able to pay for the bulk of my tuition, room, and board through a combination of summer jobs and on-campus work. We got a discount on tuition because of a link between my mother’s job and my college. And mother gave me $200 per semester for expenses beyond the basics covered in my meal plan.

Decades later, a single three-hour course at a public university costs about the same as what I paid for a full semester. Families spend about 10% of their income on helping their students get an undergraduate degree. And about 70% of students graduate from college with debt.

Is it any wonder that parents feel the need to “hover” around their students to make sure they graduate with the knowledge and skills to support themselves? Institutions of higher education often complain about helicopter parents. Some have developed tools for helping students and their families negotiate emerging adulthood (e.g., parent portals, family associations). But families do not all have the same needs.

Students who are the first in their family to attend college are often trailblazers. Rather than depending on their families during emerging adulthood, they often break from family traditions to make independent decision about college. While they may be as digitally connected to family as their continuing-generation counterparts, the conversations they have with those “back home” are often different. Instead of getting a check from Mom to help with expenses, some students who receive “excess financial aid,” intended to help them pay for necessities like food and fuel, send money home to help family members who are hungrier than they are.

How can institutions of higher education support families and students that fit at many different places on the continuum from “helicopter parent” to “trailblazing student?” Contact TorchStar to learn more about how the Parent Involvement and Engagement tool can help your institution develop actionable insights for managing students and their families throughout the lifecycle from recruitment to alumni development.