From Non-Helicopter Parent to Appropriate Support System: Appreciative Advising Strategies for Empowering Parents of Low-Income, First-Generation College Students
Michelle Ashcraft, University of South Carolina
Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's spring 2008 graduate course in the higher education and student affairs program at the University of South Carolina. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
Helicopter parents. They hover, they meddle, and they are a hot topic on campuses nationwide. Academic advisers and student affairs professionals discuss them, blame them, and sometimes dread their presence. Parents regarded as being overly involved in their students' educational endeavors helped to create the widespread notion that highly engaged parents risk stunting their children's social and intellectual growth (Hoover, 2008, p. A22). Academic advisers and student affairs professionals fear that constant parental intervention harms students' ability to develop their own problem-solving skills, which may limit developmental gains in their learning experiences (Pryor, 2008, as cited in Wyer, 2008, para. 4).
Researchers in the field of student engagement, along with experts who work directly with parents, recently demonstrated that helicopter parents actually might be untapped assets (Hoover, 2008; Jaschik, 2008). In fact, while the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement reports the majority of first-year students perceive that their parents are adequately involved in their collegiate experiences, nearly a quarter of the students want more support, especially in choosing college courses and activities (Hoover, 2008; Jaschik, 2008). Particularly notable are the discrepancies among various racial and ethnic minority groups regarding perceptions of parental involvement, with American Indian, as well as African/Black, Asian/Pacific, and especially Latino/Hispanic American students desiring far more parental involvement than their White American counterparts (Hoover, 2008; Jaschik, 2008; Wyer, 2008). McCarron and Inkelas (2006) found that first-generation students were more likely to be ethnic minorities than non-first-generation students (p. 535) and consequently more likely to have a lower socioeconomic status. Given that first-generation students declare lower perceptions of family support (Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996; Thayer, 2000, as cited in Tym, McMillion, Barone, & Webster, 2004), the purpose of this paper is to give academic advisers tools for successfully engaging the parents of low-income, first-generation students.
Lack of Understanding Leads to Reduced Parental Support
It is important to first examine the research related to low-income, first-generation students, particularly those who are also racial minorities, in order to understand what is already known about the level of involvement of these parents. Parents of first-generation students are less likely to emphasize the value of a college education to their students and less likely to give guidance regarding SATs and college applications (Choy, 2001, as cited in Tym et al., 2004; McCarron & Inkelas, 2006; Terenzini et al., 1996). Even if they want to help, parents of first-generation students who maintain a minority status (particularly the 57 percent who are female, the 20 percent who are African American, the 13 percent who are Latino, and 42 percent who are low income) often lack a familiarity with the educational system, inhibiting support for their children (Ceja, 2006; Choy, 2001, as cited in Tym et al.; Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998, as cited in Tym et al.; Schmidt, 2003, as cited in Tym et al.; Wyer, 2008). Additionally, students of first-generation parents may be discouraged from attending college, and attendance can lead to alienation from family [parental] support (Striplin, 1999, as cited in Tym et al., p. 14). These students may be criticized for devoting time to school rather than family responsibilities (Hsiao, 1992, as cited in Tym et al., p. 5), as their parents do not always understand the value of higher education. A recent survey by the College Board and the Art & Science Group indicates that 40 percent of low-income students desired more help from their parents (Hoover, 2008). As that percentage has increased, student affairs administrators have begun to attribute attrition issues to first-generation parents [who] are more likely to be leaving the student [sic] on their own (Milstone, 2008, as cited in Hoover, 2008, Too Little Involvement section, para. 6), particularly in searching for schools, selecting collegiate courses, and supporting campus involvement (Hoover, 2008).
Why the Need for Parental Support of Low-Income, First-Generation Students?
While a lack of assistance is apparent, research also demonstrates the importance of parental support for college students, particularly those who are low income, first generation, and/or ethnic minorities:
What Characterizes Parental Involvement for Low-Income, First-Generation Students?
- The transition to college inevitably decreases contact with family, and students may therefore perceive a reduction in parental support. This can create difficulties that may, in turn, negatively affect academic success while creating psychological distress. Higher levels of perceived parental support, however, result in positive academic, emotional, social, and wellness adjustments, in addition to overall life satisfaction (Friedlander, Reid, Shupak, & Cribbie, 2007; Love, 2008).
- Ethnic minority students who attend predominantly White institutions and lack parental support are more likely to experience psychological and academic difficulties (Love, 2008). These students face discrimination and conformity pressures that their White counterparts do not (Love, 2008), and are therefore more likely to drop out of college than White students (Dennis, Phinney, & Chuateco, 2005).
- The financial barriers of higher education can be detrimental to these students, as low-income, African American, and Latino families are less informed about financial aid ... [and] tend to overestimate the cost of tuition and underestimate available aid (A Shared Agenda, 2004, as cited in Tym et al., 2004, p. 3).
- Despite the financial pitfalls of seeking higher education, parental encouragement has been found to be one of the best predictors of postsecondary educational aspirations (McCarron & Inkelas, 2006, p. 536).
Parental involvement or support can be defined in a variety of ways and can be considered multifaceted. Parents' participation in their students' lives can be emotional, financial, motivational, spiritual, and educational. Specifically, Friedlander et al. (2007) identified four types of parental support: guidance and feedback (e.g., advice and instruction), non-directive support (e.g., trust and intimacy), positive social interactions (e.g., spending time with friends and family), and tangible assistance (e.g., shelter and money) (p. 261). For many parents, financial assistance may not be possible; hence, for the purposes of this paper, it will not be considered as a requirement of appropriate parental support. Additionally, guidance and feedback will not be part of the definition of parental support in that it may be difficult for first-generation parents who have not attended college to provide appropriate advice and instruction. It has been demonstrated, however, that encouragement from parents in the form of positive attitudes toward a college education and support of schoolwork positively affects students' educational aspirations more so than financial support (McCarron & Inkelas, 2006). Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, parental involvement will be defined as demonstrating an authentic interest in and encouragement for the entire educational experience of one's student while committing to learning about and utilizing resources to support the student emotionally, physically, psychologically, educationally, socially, and spiritually as the student develops.
Utilizing Appreciative Advising Creates Supportive Parents out of Non-Helicopter Parents
Before presenting programmatic initiatives to assist low-income, first-generation parents in becoming appropriate support systems for their students, a relationship must be established between the institution and the parents. Advisers frequently meet with students at orientation programs and continue to build one-on-one relationships with the students throughout their collegiate experiences. As many parents attend orientation with their students, advisers have a unique opportunity to develop ongoing relationships with the parents as well. The techniques of Appreciative Advising can help to establish these relationships so that parents will desire and seek access to additional information that can help them help their students.
Modified for the purposes of assisting parents, Appreciative Advising can be defined as the intentional collaborative practice of asking positive, open-ended questions that help [parents learn to] help [their] student[s] optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials (Bloom, in press). Appreciative Advising is composed of six phases: disarm, discover, dream, design, deliver, and don't settle (Bloom, Huston, & He, in press). Using these phases can occur in the following manner:
Potential Programming Efforts to Assist Parents of Low-Income, First-Generation Students
- Disarm. Recognize the uneasiness that low-income, first-generation parents feel when entering the world of higher education and greet these parents in a caring way. Establishing rapport quickly will help parents feel comfortable voicing their concerns.
- Discover. Initiate a positive, free-flowing discussion regarding the parents' perceptions of their relationships with their students and the strengths they possess, which will allow them to help their students succeed in college.
- Dream. Assist parents to identify areas of understanding (e.g., emotional, physical, psychological, social, and spiritual support services) that they would like to develop in order to assist their students.
- Design. Help the parents create a plan to learn about support services, find ways to get involved on campus and in their students' educational endeavors, and maintain positive relationships with their students throughout the collegiate experience.
- Deliver. Support the parents in following through on their plans.
- Don't Settle. Maintain communication to acknowledge this follow-through and help the parents continue to set new goals. (Bloom, Huston, & He, in press)
Parent and family programs are abundant on college campuses today. Advisers and student affairs professionals who work with parents are making great strides in informing them and getting them appropriately involved in campus activities and their students' lives. Parents of low-income, first-generation students, however, are a unique population that could benefit from specialized programming in order to help them become effective support systems for their students. Information that advisers gain by building relationships with these parents through Appreciative Advising efforts can help to build these programs. Some suggestions follow:
- Parent Orientation
Many institutions are incorporating parent orientation in the typical welcome programs that first-year students attend to get acquainted with campus life. As previously indicated, however, parents of low-income, first-generation students lack basic knowledge of higher education in general (Ceja, 2006; Choy, 2001, as cited in Tym et al., 2004; Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998, as cited in Tym et al.; Schmidt, 2003, as cited in Tym et al.; Terenzini et al., 1996; Wyer, 2008). As part of the disarm and discover phases of Appreciative Advising, parents of low-income, first-generation students would benefit from a specifically tailored orientation session to address common concerns that their students face in transitioning to college and ways parents can help to facilitate that transition in a positive manner. Two concerns arise, however, when implementing specific orientation sessions for these parents. First, separating these students and parents from others at orientation may make them feel even more marginalized; secondly, those who coordinate orientation often like to separate parents and students for advising sessions in order to empower students to take control of their academic experience. To overcome these concerns, advisers could consider participating in pre-orientation events that are often coordinated by TRIO campus programs for first-generation students with social, economic, and/or cultural barriers. These advisers could hold sessions specifically for parents to prepare them for orientation and introduce them to the collegiate experience. Campuses without TRIO programs could work with appropriate offices on their campuses to coordinate similar ventures.
- Student-Parent Advising and/or Counseling Sessions
Because low-income, first-generation students are themselves learning how to navigate the educational system, it could be difficult for them to explain to their parents what kind of support would be helpful, especially when the parents are also unfamiliar with higher education. To continue the dream and discover phases of Appreciative Advising, both parents and students of low-income, first-generation backgrounds could benefit from student-parent advising and/or student-parent counseling (McCarron & Inkelas, 2006). During this time an adviser, counselor, or student affairs professional can help both the parent and the student navigate the system and enhance their relationships.
- Financial Aid Information
Though obtaining financial aid can be a difficult process for any family, parents of low-income, first-generation students are in double jeopardy (i.e., coming from a low socioeconomic status and lacking knowledge of the educational system). Because they tend to overestimate the cost of an education and underestimate the available aid (A Shared Agenda, 2004, as cited in Tym et al., 2004), these parents could especially benefit from easy-to-understand information on various types of aid. Additionally, offering workshops to assist parents in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and/or discuss helping their students manage money in college could help ease the stress of financial support. Workshops such as these could be incorporated into the aforementioned orientation sessions as part of the dream phase of Appreciative Advising. Advisers could suggest topics about which parents lack understanding so that financial aid counselors can tailor sessions to meet these parents' needs.
- Newsletters and Websites
Newsletters are a great way to get information to parents and can be used in the design phase of Appreciative Advising. More information seems to be posted online than in tangible brochures, pamphlets, and other paper media. This creates an issue about communicating with parents of low-income, first-generation students, who have less access to the Internet than those with more income and familiarity with higher education (A Shared Agenda, as cited in Tym et al., 2004) A specific newsletter should be created to highlight low-income, first-generation issues (Hoover, 2008) in order to assist these parents plan for and use services to assist their students. Such a newsletter should be available in both electronic and non-electronic formats so that it can be distributed to all parents, regardless of Internet access.
- Parent Advisory Council
As parents begin to learn how to navigate the higher education system and support their low-income, first-generation students, they could be empowered to help other parents by participating on a parent advisory council (correlating with the dream, deliver, and don't settle phases of Appreciative Advising). This advisory board could aid in coordinating the orientation program. It would also be responsible for communicating with other parents of incoming first-generation students prior to their arrival at the university and could also assist parents of current students throughout the year, possibly through a parent hotline. Such services would aid in fostering commitment and support from those parents once they understand how they can best help their students, .
While programmatic initiatives are listed above to encourage advisers to assist non-helicopter parents serve as effective support systems for their students, parents programs on campuses nationwide are developing innovative programs each year to serve parents as a whole. Information gathered by advisers through their interactions with these parents could help student affairs professionals involved in family programming to better serve low-income, first-generation parents. On campuses that perhaps lack any initiatives for parents, advisers should challenge themselves to begin programming for this unique group of parents and, if possible, should collaborate with TRIO programs to establish programs for parents. The benefits of appropriate parental involvement have been discussed, and as Jerry T. Brewer, associate vice president for student affairs at the University of South Carolina and a former first-generation college student, says, Student don't trust anyone as much as mom and dad. ... Why not have a partnership with the people who are the most trusted advisers? (Hoover, 2008, 'The Most Trusted Advisors' section, para. 1).
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Wyer, K. (2008, January 24). Survey finds most college freshmen satisfied with close parental involvement: Most say parents involved 'right amount,' but Latinos say 'too little.' Retrieved March 22, 2008, from University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies website: http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/heri/PDFs/press/pr012408-07Freshman.pdf
About the Author
Michelle L. Ashcraft is a graduate student in the higher education and student affairs program at the University of South Carolina. She also serves as a graduate assistant in the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Published in The Mentor on July 16, 2008, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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