Colleges catering to curious parents as well as prospective students

April 9, 2011

When Marymount University was planning a “scholars day” a few years ago for high school seniors who had been offered admission, the Arlington County school received a phone call from a mother in Arizona. She wanted to know what was scheduled for parents.

University officials couldn’t interest her in tourist attractions, and they hesitated to allow grown-ups into the student-targeted event. So they organized activities just for parents. It was a hit.

Now Marymount sends parents postcards several times a year, invites them to parent-only events and publishes a full-color “Guide for Parents.” It is one of a growing number of schools to discover that it’s not enough to communicate with prospective students. The colleges are also wooing parents who are digitally tethered to their offspring and want more involvement than writing a tuition check.

“When my first one went to college, all of the parents were sitting there like, ‘Why won’t you listen to us? We’re the ones paying the bill,’ ” said Patrice Searl of Philadelphia, who toured Marymount last month with the youngest of her four children, Caitlin. Universities, she said, “have gotten a lot better about it.”

In this spring admission season, many colleges target parents via their Web sites, and some address financial aid letters: “To the parents of . . . .” Catholic University plans to have a parents-only reception with administrators, professors and alumni this month. St. Mary’s College of Maryland posts letters from parents and their e-mail addresses on its admissions Web site. And Wake Forest University hosts a “mock class” for parents to pepper faculty with questions.

Students have long sought to make independent choices about college. “Now it’s a family decision,” said Martha Allman, dean of admissions at Wake Forest.

Sharon Alston, executive director of enrollment at American University, said: “It used to be that parents were just along for the ride, but this is a generation that feels like parents are partners.”

Parents of first-generation college students often need help navigating the complicated application process. Parents whose families are steeped in college experience are savvy about the market and hungry for scholarships.

“I’m very involved with this whole process, almost to the point where it’s too much,” said Nancy Levinson of Long Island, N.Y., whose 17-year-old daughter, Shelby, recently visited American. “I’m at work in front of a computer all day, and she’s at school. I look things up. I don’t want her to wait to find things out.”

Levinson said she participates in college-sponsored online chats and often calls or e-mails financial aid officers or department heads — things she said her parents never would have done. But college is more expensive these days.

“Even though she’s going to be the one going to college, I’m paying for most of it. I do have a right, if I have a question, to call up and find out,” Levinson said.

Sometimes overeager parents get in the way. Some colleges split up applicants and parents — at least for a bit — during visits so the former can soak up the campus vibe while the latter can ask about logistics and financial aid.

“If I could ban parents from the campus visit, I would. They take the fun out of it,” said Jeff Kallay, an admissions marketing consultant in Atlanta who helps colleges transform tours into “experiences.” “People are still trying to figure out these parents.”

At Juniata College in Pennsylvania, parents of prospective students are herded into a room with a handful of parents of current students to talk about “anything and everything,” said Michelle Bartol, dean of enrollment.

In one session, a parent asked if it was all right to call a student’s professor. In another, a parent questioned the lack of diversity on campus, sparking an impassioned conversation.

“It was almost like ‘Oprah,’ ” Bartol said. “They were really into it.”

Picking a college often means emptying the nest. That can get emotional for highly involved parents. American University taps those raw feelings in a new admissions video shown twice a day at its welcome center.

At the start, the video shows a fictional student named Madeline waving goodbye as her parents drive off from her freshman dormitory.

But she keeps her parents — and the rest of the world — updated about her college experience through Facebook. At the end, Madeline snaps graduation photos and reloads the family car.

“The parents are tearing up at the end of it — in a good way,” said Teresa Flannery, executive director of university communications and marketing.

American seeks to please parents with small touches. The welcome center, recently remodeled, is in one of the most convenient spots on campus. There is underground parking and ample signage. And there is plenty of free coffee, in various flavors, in a lounge stocked with books written by faculty members.

Even when parents try to hang back, it’s hard not to get involved, said Allen Barnett of Tuxedo Park, N.Y., who toured American with his 17-year-old son, Cameron, during spring break last month.

Barnett said he tries to keep his opinions to himself as he shows his son college options. But at the end of the search, he said, “you always want to make sure they don’t make a mistake.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and the 2014 election.
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