New Study Gives Hovering College Parents Extra Credit

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007

Despite the negative reputation of "helicopter parents," those moms and dads who hover over children in college and swoop into their academic affairs appear to be doing plenty of good.

That's the conclusion of one of the nation's most respected college surveys in a report, to be released today, that experts call the first to examine the effects of helicopter parenting.

Data from 24 colleges and universities gathered for the National Survey of Student Engagement show that students whose parents were very often in contact with them and frequently intervened on their behalf "reported higher levels of engagement and more frequent use of deep learning activities," such as after-class discussions with professors, intensive writing exercises and independent research, than students with less-involved parents.

"Compared with their counterparts, children of helicopter parents were more satisfied with every aspect of their college experience, gained more in such areas as writing and critical thinking, and were more likely to talk with faculty and peers about substantive topics," said survey director George D. Kuh, an Indiana University professor.

The study found no evidence that helicopter parenting produces better grades. In fact, students with very-involved parents had lower grades than those whose parents were not so involved, but the authors suggest that "perhaps the reason some parents intervened was to support a student who was having academic difficulties."

Several college officials said the lower grades of children of very-involved parents suggested that the parents were accustomed to helping them get through school. They added that the study showed such intervention could be healthy. Barbara W. Williams, dean for special student services at Howard University, said she found that parents of students with disabilities were more apt to get involved in their college lives.

Parents, college officials and college-family relationship experts agree that the study is a blow to the widely accepted notion that little good can come from meddling in college children's lives.

The College Board, a New York-based nonprofit organization that oversees the SAT and Advanced Placement programs, devotes a page on its Web site to the topic "How Not to Be a Helicopter Parent." It asserts: "Parents may have complex reasons for hovering. No matter what the motive is though, the results of doing so are negative for everyone involved."

College Board officials said their conclusion was accurate based on their definition of helicopter parents: those who are in constant contact with their children and with colleges, who make academic decisions and who feel bad if their children do not do well.

Robyn J. Rickenbach, a Fairfax County parent with a freshman son at Virginia Tech, said she was "just dumbfounded" by the findings of the NSSE (pronounced "Nessie"). "If you are a helicopter parent when your kids are in college," she said, "are you going to continue to be a helicopter parent when your kids get out of college? When they get married?"

Lynda Hitchcock, a career and college information coordinator at Wootton High School in Montgomery County, said she would not describe herself as an over-involved mother. But Hitchcock said her daughter at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., would probably disagree. Hitchcock said the helicopter parent label is simplistic. "If parents take an interest and they want their kids to do well, their kids will tend to do well," she said.

Some college officials who work with parents said they were glad a reputable source is challenging a stereotype. "I don't tend to look at intervention by parents as a negative thing," said Patricia M. Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer at the University of Virginia. "My kids are about to be college-age, and I look at it as we have a generation of parents who absolutely care about their sons and daughters."

David J. Strauss, dean of students at Wayne State University in Detroit, said, "Calling parents 'helicopter parents' criticizes and disrespects the role they have in raising their student."

James A. Boyle, president of the 20,000-member College Parents of America, based in Arlington County, called the study a "reaffirmation of our mission to empower parents to support their children on the path to college and through college." He added: "The stereotype has been harmful. It created an image that doesn't lend itself to a dialogue."

Helen E. Johnson, a North Carolina expert on college parents and author of the book "Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money," said it was unclear from the study exactly how the very-involved parents managed to encourage better learning habits in their children. She said it was likely that the parents gave good advice, such as telling the students to visit professors during office hours. "You do not take on your children's problems," Johnson said, "but you talk to them about it."

The report, available at, sampled 9,162 students from a variety of schools, including Western Illinois University, Kansas State University, Seton Hall University, New England College, the University of Rhode Island and the Art Institute of Washington.

The study says that 13 percent of first-year students and 8 percent of seniors reported having a parent or guardian who "frequently intervened on their behalf to help them solve problems they were having at the college." Mothers were the family member students talked with most often, and three-quarters of students said they frequently followed the advice of their parents or guardians. Kuh, the survey director, said students with helicopter parents "trumped their peers on every measure we use," even after controlling for parental education, college selectivity and size.

The survey was created in 1998 to ascertain how much colleges are encouraging activities shown to improve learning, including undergraduate research, frequent writing and conversations on academic topics with professors outside of class.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company