Family Support and Encouragement are Critical to Student Success

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.
— Mark Twain

Parents don’t (and probably shouldn’t) know everything about their student’s college experience or what an institution offers in terms of academic and support services.  At the same time, it’s a good bet that no one wants or has invested more in seeing a student succeed than one’s mother or father. 

As much or more than any previous generation, traditional-age undergraduates today welcome parental advice and encouragement. 

In fact, the National Survey of Student Engagement reported several years ago that students were in frequent contact with family members – at least two to three times a week on average.  Cell phones, Instagram, texts and so on make such interactions almost effortless.  Moreover, when students seek advice from a parent, the majority of the time students reported they would likely act on what their mom or dad suggested. 

Yes, so-called “helicopter parents” constantly hovering over their student can dampen their offspring’s undeniable quest for autonomy and independence.  And for sure, an academic advisor is the preferred source of information about the specific courses to take in order to make timely progress to the degree. 

Even so, research and common sense suggest that family support and encouragement are critical to students developing resilience and sense of purpose. 

But for various reasons, one of which is a legal obligation – the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or FERPA -- institutions have been skittish to communicate directly with parents about many matters other than providing general information, such as through periodic newsletters or other means.  For some parents and students, this may be sufficient.  But most students and families would benefit from a more forthcoming, fulsome relationship with their college or university.

In fact, any student can allow the institution to provide parental access to one’s records by signing a release. Doing so can benefit the majority of students and their families, and is especially important for students who are the first in their family to attend college.  In many instances, the parents or guardians of these “first gen” students have little tacit knowledge about the range of challenging circumstances that their student might face.  Thus, they are limited in how and when they can offer support or even who their student should contact at the institution to get advice and help. 

Colleges and universities could and should do more to involve parents in their student’s education in appropriate ways. 

It stands to reason that the right kind of partnership between institutions, parents, and students will help more students thrive in college and complete their educational program in a timely fashion.  It is hard to imagine a more promising, cost-effective, and personalized approach to increasing student success.


NOTE: George D. Kuh, PhD, is the Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Higher Education at Indiana University and a member of CampusESP's Advisory Board.