What “Helicopter Parents” Should Really Want

“Helicopter parents” are in the news again. These are parents of college students who don’t let go—they “hover” over their children, staying in constant electronic communication. When a problem arises, they drop down and help the students get out of a fix. At the extreme, this behavior annoys university officials, and some administrators fear that these parents are keeping their children from growing up.

Helicopter parents got a bit of a boost recently, however, from a surprising direction—a new effort by colleges to be accountable. A national survey discovered that students whose parents took an active role in their school life were more “satisfied with every aspect of their college experience,” George Kuh, director of the survey, told the Washington Post (Nov. 5).

Kuh directs the National Student Survey of Engagement (NSSE, pronounced Nessie). Since 1999, a number of schools have surveyed their freshmen and seniors to learn about their college experience—how “engaged” they are in learning. The survey asks students how frequently they were expected to write papers, how much out-of-class contact they had with faculty, how beneficial their academic advisers were, that sort of thing.

This month, for the first time, NSSE, which is located at Indiana University at Bloomington, published results from 257 schools (out of 610 in total). They are available at USA Today.

One finding was the endorsement of parents who stay involved in their children’s education. These “helicopter” parents deepened and enriched their children’s experience, NSSE said. (These students did not, however, do as well academically as the children of non-involved parents.)

Reporters probably latched on to this news because the NSSE report itself was anticlimactic.

Parents, students, regulators, and watchdogs like the Pope Center have been pushing for more measurements of student outcomes, and NSSE is seen as one way to judge a school’s effectiveness. Until recently, the surveys were mainly used as an in-house tool for figuring out how to improve the college experience.

Unfortunately, the newly published reports on individual schools didn’t get into detailed answers such as how many papers per semester students actually have to write—even though the survey asked such questions. Rather, each school published its scores in five broad “benchmark” categories.

To illustrate: Greensboro College reported that it had a score of 49.1 (out of a potential 100) on the “level of academic challenge” it provided for first-year students (one of five benchmarks). For all participating schools of a similar kind (in this case, baccalaureate colleges in the arts and sciences), the average score was 56.0. A prospective student, thus, can learn that Greensboro is a little less challenging than the average (the figures for seniors were roughly parallel, 56.1 and 59.9).

An NSSE official points out that a 100 score is an “unattainable ideal.” That would mean that every student scores the highest possible on every component of the benchmark. Most scores range between 40 and 70.

Other benchmarks include: “active and collaborative learning,” “student-faculty interaction,” “enriching educational experiences,” and “supportive campus environment.”

Although reporting such scores has some merit, by and large the scores are presented in such broad categories that they seem vague and not that meaningful to the parent searching for information. (The schools themselves receive much more detailed information.)

One of the most interesting nuggets revealed by NSSE is that students spend about 13 to 14 hours of week studying. This is about half of what faculty members surveyed by NSSE feel is necessary. Now that tells us something: if the faculty are right, the average school doesn’t demand nearly as much of students as it should.

So, one challenge for parents of college students is this: At which schools do students study substantially more than 13 to 14 hours per week? NSSE doesn’t tell us. Helicopter parents, call up the administrators and ask.

(Fourteen North Carolina schools reported their NSSE results. They are: Appalachian state, Barton, Belmont Abbey, Elon, Fayetteville State, Gardner-Webb, Greensboro, Mars Hill, Meredith, Peace, UNC-Wilmington, UNC-Asheville, Western Carolina, and Wingate.)

Jane S. Shaw is the Executive Vice President of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.