Over the last decade, a new generation of students—the so-called Millennials—enrolled in college. Many of those students shared a unique set of characteristics that made them both a challenge and a pleasure for those in higher education to work with and to teach. Perhaps the most interesting of these characteristics, from a higher-education perspective, was the Millennials' close relationships with their parents. An increasing number of the students' parents, in turn, have felt that they need to be actively involved in their offspring's college educational experience.
That greater parental involvement has included helping students to select courses and residence halls, and even attending disciplinary hearings. Millennials' parents have also become very active in calling or e-mailing their children's professors, as well as college administrators and staff, with their concerns. While such calls have always taken place to a limited extent, they now occur on a daily basis—with the knowledge and approval of the student.
Many of the baby-boomer parents of Millennials were involved in social-change movements when they were in college. They feel passionate about getting involved and realize that they can make a difference. Often called "helicopter parents" because they "hover" over the lives of their sons and daughters from preschool to college graduation, many of them are in fact reasonable and patient when dealing with the university. In many cases, the parents are willing to help the university by recruiting students, hiring students for internships and permanent positions, and serving on various university advisory boards. Their involvement, and that of the Millennials themselves, has resulted in increased volunteerism and community service and a greater appreciation for diversity.
The Millennial generation will still be in college until about 2020. What other changes might we now expect as we prepare to deal with the students of the second decade of this century, and their parents?
We have already witnessed changes in our students' habits and behavior—most notably among post-2010 Millennials, the heavier use of technology and social media, which has already resulted in changes in the way we teach, communicate, educate, and retain those students. As for the next generation of college parents—the Generation X'ers—they may pose an even greater challenge for administrators and professors than the students.
If demographic trends hold, the Gen-X parents will be even more involved, but less patient and reasonable, than their baby-boomer predecessors. Gen-X parents are likely to be less financially secure than the boomers were, so the cost of college education will be an increasingly major factor. They are frequently more action-oriented, self-reliant, and cynical than boomers, with less respect for individuals in authority. They will, therefore, likely expect colleges to help resolve their offspring's difficulties as quickly as possible. They will also be less patient with the fact that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents them from access to their children's educational records.
In order to accommodate the increased involvement of parents, many colleges and universities have established offices and professional positions dedicated to parent relations. At our institution, Bradley University, parents volunteer to serve on a Parents' Board of Directors, which helps to recruit new students, find internships for students at the members' workplaces, and raise funds for university projects.
For universities to better serve the new generations of students and their parents in this challenging economic environment, we recommend the following strategies:
Establish a proactive, responsive Office of Parent Relations. The office should have at least one professional staff member and a Web site. It should be housed within the division of student affairs, because that office has the primary responsibility for the health, safety, welfare, happiness, and overall success of their sons and daughters, and is best equipped to handle most of the questions or concerns that parents might have.
Regularly provide current data on graduation and placement rates, demonstrating the value of your institution's educational experience. Such data will be critical to Generation-X parents as they assess the value of your institution. Consequently, it will be necessary to have above-average retention, graduation, and job-placement rates. Become familiar with the national data and where your institution ranks.
Provide clear, concise financial-aid information. Given the state of our economy, both now and in the foreseeable future, it will become increasingly important for universities to help parents understand how to finance the cost of college.
Offer opportunities for parents to get involved in positive ways. If your university does not have an active parents' board, now is a good time to establish one. The board should consist of an equal number of parents representing each class, geographic region, and academic major, and represent the interests of all students' parents to the administration. It may also be divided into working committees such as admissions and retention; fund raising; and career placement. The board should be updated on the university's immediate and future plans, as well as any challenges or opportunities. The board, in turn, should offer feedback, suggestions, and advice to the administration, and meet at least once a semester with key administrators, including the president. An effective, quality parents' board will be active, involved, and make a positive difference in the quality of the students' educational experience.
Provide more opportunities for internships and community service. Doing so will not only take advantage of the passion students have for community service but also provide them with meaningful experiences outside the classroom. By providing additional internship opportunities, the university will increase the value of the students' educational experience and will likely enhance the university's job-placement rate.
Use up-to-date technology to communicate with, recruit, educate, and retain students, and to keep parents informed. Millennials grew up with cellphones and the Internet: As a result, they expect immediate access to information. Their parents, similarly, have become e-mail-savvy and demand prompt replies to their messages. In the classroom, educators should consider increasing their use of audience-response technology, like clickers, to allow students to share ideas in an anonymous and quantitative method. Departmental pages on Facebook, meanwhile, can help professors improve communication with their students.
As much of the higher-education community faces a possible perfect-storm scenario—fewer students, weak economy, less federal and state support, greater accountability, more demands for assessment—it is important that universities understand and are prepared to respond proactively to the post-2010 Millennial students and their Generation X parents. Is your university ready?