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?

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

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: Conclusion

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).


Bloom, J. L., Huston, B. L., & He, Y. (in press). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Bloom, J. L. (in press). Moving on from college. In V. Gordon, W. Habley, & T. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed.).

Ceja, M. (2006). Understanding the role of parents and siblings as information sources in the college choice process of Chicana students. Journal of College Student Development, 47(1), 87–104.

Dennis, J. M., Phinney, J. S., & Chuateco, L. I. (2005). The role of motivation, parental support, and peer support in the academic success of ethnic minority first-generation college students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(3), 223–36.

Friedlander, L. J., Reid, G. J., Shupak, N., & Cribbie, R. (2007). Social support, self-esteem, and stress as predictors of adjustment to university among first-year undergraduates. Journal of College Student Development, 48(3), 259–74.

Hoover, E. (2008). Surveys of students challenge 'helicopter' parent stereotypes. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(21), A22.

Jaschik, S. (2008, January 24). Parental involvement wanted. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved February 1, 2008, from

Love, K. M. (2008). Parental attachments and psychological distress among African American college students. Journal of College Student Development, 49(1), 31–40.

McCarron, G. P. & Inkelas, K. K. (2006). The gap between educational aspirations and attainment for first-generation college students and the role of parental involvement. Journal of College Student Development, 47(5), 534–49.

Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Yaeger, P. M., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1996). First-generation college students: Characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development. Research in Higher Education, 37(1), 1–22.

Tym, C., McMillion, R., Barone, S., & Webster, J. (2004, November). First-generation college students: A literature review. TG Research and Analytical Services.

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:

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 or

Published in The Mentor on July 16, 2008, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at
Privacy and Legal Statements | Copyright | © The Pennsylvania State University | All rights reserved