The Payoffs of Parent Outreach

The Payoffs of Parent Outreach

Listservs, e-mails, and interactive web programs are just a few of the tools IHEs are using to keep parents better connected to the campus and to their children.
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Francesca Karpel, a mother of twins, sent her son to Case Western University (Ohio) and her daughter to Trinity University (Texas) last fall. While neither university is a short jaunt from her Belmont, Calif., home, she feels closer to Trinity. Part of the reason for this is Parent Talk, Trinity's parent-only listserv, of which she is an active member.

Developed four years ago and boasting about 600 subscribers, Parent Talk hosts discussions on a variety of topics--from meal plans and alcohol abuse to finding a reliable mechanic to ordering birthday cake. "I've found Parent Talk a very helpful way to feel connected to Trinity and to learn more about Texas," Karpel says. "It has helped me to let go, feel reassurance about the student body, and laugh--as I've read the perspective of more experienced parents," she says.

The Trinity listserv was created to foster better parent relations with the university. "Parents had been complaining that the only time they heard from us was when it was time to pay the bills," says David Tuttle, Trinity's dean of students and director of Residential Life. "The listserv is a very personal way for us to interact with parents and for them to interact with each other." Tuttle not only moderates the listserv, but also responds to inquiries and discussions, and sends out weekly updates which are often injected with funny anecdotes as well as real insight into student life from an administrator's perspective.

"You never know what's going to fly with parents and what's not until they bring it up on the listserv." -David Tuttle, Trinity University

Parent Talk also attracts many onlookers, known in the Trinity cyber-community as "lurkers." One lurker, Andrea Shelton, is a Trinity grad whose eldest son does not attend Trinity. His school does not offer a parent listserv. "I felt very disconnected to what my son was going through. That's when I turned to TU," she says. Shelton had even gone to the school's administration and made her case for a parent listserv. She received little feedback. "I am very disappointed and frustrated with this aspect of my son's college. There's so much camaraderie on the TU listserve. I am envious," she says.

But as in any open forum, there are bound to be conflicts of opinion. While parents tend to get grouped together as a "homogenous contingent," Tuttle says, they in fact have very different mindsets. He learned this when The Vagina Monologues were being shown on campus. Some parents wrote in that they "expected more out of Trinity than to let this happen. Others wrote, "This is exactly what I expect from Trinity--to expose my child to such things." "You never know what's going to fly with parents and what's not until they bring it up on the listserv," Tuttle says.

But listservs are just one of the many tools that IHE's are using to create good will among parents and encourage their participation. At the University of New Hampshire, parents can sign up to receive a monthly e-mail from their child's hall director detailing campus events and floor programs, and suggesting timely topics to discuss with their kids. "Parents really appreciate the individual attention," says Shannon Marthouse, assistant director of Residential Life at UNH. "It gives them peace of mind to know they have a name and an e-mail address if they have questions or concerns." Currently, more than 2,900 parents have signed up to receive the monthly e-mail. Only a handful of parents request information via snail mail. UNH, however, is heading towards a purely technological approach, she says.

Before the monthly e-mails, Marthouse describes parents' behavior as very reactive. "They had to go through a lot to track us down if they had a problem. We decided that we wanted to be more proactive," she says. To increase parent communication, Marthouse and her staff wrote to the parent association and requested a $6,000 grant (which they received) in March 2002 to increase outreach to parents.

The University of Southern California is another institution that welcomes collaboration with parents. The university prides itself on its parent website, which can be accessed from a simple click of the parents icon off the homepage. "We felt it was important to offer a tool that responds to parent needs, especially now that they are much more involved in their child's decision-making process," says Beth Saul, director of parent programs for USC.

In fact, it has become a rarity for an institution not to have a parent site, says Jim Boyle, president of College Parents of America, a Virginia-based advocacy group. "It is going to have to become standard operating procedure because this coming generation of parents is very used to utilizing the web for communication," he says.

"Often parents don't get involved until it's too late, and that's when they become overbearing and overinvolved." -Tracy Howe, GoalQuest

USC's "Ask a Question" section is a good example of the university's innovative web programming. Parents can pose all sorts of questions and then submit them electronically. Typically, they will get a response within a few hours. Saul says questions range from light to serious. Anything from "Where's the local dry cleaner?" to "I haven't heard from my son or daughter in a few days. Can you help me locate them?" is fair game.

Between the Q & A (also offered on the site) and the Ask a Question feature, Saul believes parents have access to all the information they need. A parent listserv, she says, could be problematic. "Parents don't know exactly how a university operates. There's the concern that they might give incorrect information to other parents," Saul says. Instead, they have a 30-member parents council, whom parents can freely contact.

The University of Vermont, though similar to others in its use of technology to aid outreach, reaches parents on many different levels. Using Parent Connection software developed by GoalQuest, a company specializing in web-based communication tools, UVM is strengthening parent relations while encouraging participation in the university's fundraising campaign. Parents are e-mailed periodically and directed to the site hosted by GoalQuest where they can read about "Supporting Your Student from Home" or "Building the Ultimate Care Package." One of the sessions with the highest readership is called "How do you get along with your son or daughter when they come back home?" says Alan Ryea, director of UVM's alumni and parent programs.

"The goal is to arm parents with smart and relevant things to say to their son or daughter. It's a service approach," says Tracy Howe, co-founder of GoalQuest. "We understand the needs of parents--from the anxieties that freshmen parents face to the concerns over job prospects that parents of graduating seniors face."

Parent Connection especially seeks to quell the concerns of "helicopter" parents, those who hover over their children. "We give parents the resources they need to confront problems before they become crises. Often parents don't get involved until it's too late, and that's when they become overbearing and overinvolved," Howe says.

"Parents don't know exactly how a university operates. There's the concern that they might give incorrect information to other parents." -Beth Saul, USC

But there is also a solicitation element to the site. Parents can click on a link directing them to the institution's advancement site. This tactic has proven successful. Donor participation rates among parents was 28.9 percent last year, but it is now up to 37.4 percent (among parents who read at least 50 percent of the Parent Connection sessions). For parents who read less than 50 percent of the sessions, their participation rate is 31.9 percent. "We're not using this merely as a solicitation vehicle," Ryea says. "But we are interested in seeing a return on investment."

However, some institutions believe that money should be raised in the development office only. "It's a conflict of interest," says Rodney Johnson, director of parent services at George Washington University (D.C.). "If you were a parent who just asked for more scholarship money and then you got an e-mail asking for money, you are not going to be happy," he says. Instead, Johnson says parent programs should be purely service-oriented. "If you do good communication and offer good services to parents, they will give eventually. But which do you do first? Make sure their students are happy and successful or ask them for money?"

This leads to the question: What department should handle parent programs? Parent relations is often scattered among different departments, everywhere from Residential Life to Student Affairs to the Development Office. "I see it migrating more towards Student Affairs," says Boyle of College Parents of America. "Yes, parents are a major player in advancement. But they are also very important in recruitment and retention." Parents play a critical role in choosing a college, and if they're not satisfied, they'll easily pull their children out.

Many believe that parents are an important constituency that perhaps in the past has gone undervalued. Johnson, of GW, says the university recognized this 13 years ago when it was one of the first schools to create an Office of Parents.

"We realize that the baby boomer parents are helicopter parents. They're the soccer moms and dads; they had the 'Child on Board' stickers," he says. "But even though they hover, dive in, and hover some more, they are wonderful parents. They just expect more interaction and services."


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