Talking with the Parents of Advisees

Claudia Stack, University of North Carolina at Wilmington

I have seen quite a bit in print about the formative and important conversations that take place between a student and his or her adviser but nothing to guide advisers when they speak with parents. Theoretically, the issue never arises because the vast majority of college students are adults. (Remember, I did say “theoretically.”) In practice, our General College Advising Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington frequently receives phone calls, e-mails, and visits from parents, especially the concerned parents of first-year students. The concern and the inquiries are not exclusive to the parents of first-year students, however. I can recall two cases last year when the parents of students who were supposedly near graduation called our office, only to discover that their children had been taking tuition money from them but had not been enrolled for years!

Arguably those situations are even tougher than those involving failing first-year students because of the betrayal involved. In any case, advisers should not simply refuse to talk with parents on the grounds that students are legal adults.

Here in the General College Advising Center at UNCW, we pride ourselves on a culture of service. We like to say that our office will either be the last stop or the next-to-the-last stop on a student's search for answers on our campus. We try to either resolve the student's issue or make sure we are sending him or her to the right person. Refusing to talk with parents because it can be difficult just isn't the right option for advisers in our office.

I may be old-fashioned, but I think adult students who are relying on their parents financially owe them some accountability. Like all advisers, however, I am also bound by federal law, specifically the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, to protect my students' privacy. It is a fine line to walk, but I have found that my interactions with parents usually fall into one of three sets of circumstances:
  1. A parent calls when no consent to disclose information has been signed by the student, and the parent has not completed the form attesting that the student is his or her financial dependent (the law does allow sharing of information about academic standing if the parent provides half or more of the student's financial support for the calendar year in which the parent's tax year begins). In this case, I find it best to speak with the parent in general terms, providing information about university requirements without specific reference to the student's grades or other records. Quite often, the parent does know enough specifics to fill in the whole picture. For example, if the parent knows that his or her child failed two courses per semester during the first year, and I tell him or her that the student needs twenty-seven hours to be a sophomore at UNCW, then the parent will be able to deduce that his or her child has not attained sophomore standing despite being enrolled for a full year. It is also helpful in many cases to explain that students can access their grades online and to encourage the parent to sit down with his or her child at the computer and look at the grades together. In addition, outlining the many resources available to students at UNCW and any relevant policies (such as our “Repeat Policy,” which allows students to retake and replace up to five grades of F, D, or C-) provides useful information and can help diffuse frustration.

  2. A parent calls or visits asking very specific questions about his or her child's progress, and the student has not signed a consent form to disclose information. I try to encourage the parent to get answers from the student about his or her grades and progress. However, if the parent is insistent and attests (on our prescribed form) that he or she provides half or more of the student's financial support, I will discuss the student's specific situation. I limit my side of the conversation to academic facts such as grades and standing. I am not at liberty to report conversations I might have had with the student about his/her relationship woes, for example, and doing so would be a breach of the student's trust in me. As in the previous circumstance above, I outline the student's options and discuss the resources that are available to him or her.

  3. One or both parents come to the office with the student. Before we all sit down together, I ask the student if he or she is willing to sign a consent to disclose information to his or her parent(s). This step is helpful because it emphasizes to the student that he or she does have some say in the matter. At the same time, however, it is clear that if he or she agrees to sign and converse about his or her progress, I expect honest participation. Once we are all looking at the situation together, I try to be as neutral as possible while staying close to the facts. This conversation is often emotional, so it helps if the adviser can stay pleasant and cool. For example, instead of accusing the student (“You didn't work hard in chemistry, so you failed!”), I try to reflect the facts in a neutral way (“Based on your grades, it appears that you're no longer focused on a science degree.”). I address the student directly whenever possible because there is a real risk of the parents doing all of the talking while the student “shuts down” in self-defense.
The following general tips may help advisers in their conversations with parents: Though conversations with parents can be challenging, they are often an inevitable part of academic advising. These case studies and tips may help you and your colleagues to develop strategies for maintaining confidentiality while effectively communicating with parents.

About the Author

Claudia Stack is general college advisor in the General College Advising Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She can be reached at or 910-962-3821.

Published in The Mentor on July 14, 2003, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
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