The Old College Pry

How do we know when we’ve become too involved in our offspring’s college education?

Is it okay to call a professor to dispute a test score? Should we proofread papers? Should we have access to grades if we are paying tuition? Should we storm the Dean’s office?

This recovering helicopter mom got the straight dope from college professors – and you won’t believe their stories… CONTINUE READING >>

Veronica Writing

It’s hard to let our kids go. The day our babies head out on their own, whether in the direction of their own apartment or a college dorm room, is a tough one for any parent.

When the time came for our first chick, The Piglet, to fly off on her own, David escorted her to college while I stayed home to tend the nest.

I bravely smiled and waved as I deposited them on the plane — then sat in my car in the airport parking lot and cried like Tammy Faye Bakker on the second day of her period. It was a regular air-sucking, mascara-dripping, please-God-nobody-see-me sob fest.

Not my finest moment.

Back at home with the two remaining chicks, I thankfully was able to focus my helicopter mom hover on their antics. It was a darn good thing they needed me because I might have followed The Piglet to college.

Life went on as well as could be expected until The Piglet’s first semester ended and I didn’t have access to grades. Seriously? I’m paying tens of thousands of dollars for college and I DON’T EVEN GET TO SEE THE GRADES?! WTH?

When I spoke to The Piglet about it, I was told, “Duh, Mom, I’m an adult now and you can’t just look at my records.”

The helicopter mom in me bristled. After all, any hovering mother knows that grades are a large indicator — a snapshot of how a kid’s life is going. But really, is it our business once they go to college?

Turns out The Piglet was correct (damn!).

College students are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which expressly forbids a college or university to disclose grades to parents. Many institutions offer a waver for the students to sign allowing parental access, but personally, I would think long and hard before asking my kid to do this. This is a time in their lives when a bit of privacy goes a long way towards self-reliance and maturity.

According to the University of Michigan website:

“If you wish to find out about your student’s grades and academic standing, the best approach is to ask your son or daughter directly. College students are generally willing to share information about grades and academic performance with their parents as they assume greater responsibility for their own lives and are able to discuss academic issues with their parents as mature adults.”

In my case, the U of M website advice hit the mark dead-on. The Piglet strutted off to college as an I-know-everything teenager intent on world domination. Imagine my shock when I received a phone call during her sophomore year asking my opinion on what classes she should take. She hadn’t asked for my thoughts on anything since The Great Puberty Wars.

My year off from helicoptering had done us both a lot of good and I was ecstatic over my new role as an enthusiastic sounding board. Go figure, I was able to simply listen and allow her to sort things out for herself. Progress, indeed.

FERPA restrictions and sage advice from universities aside, professors receive phone calls and e-mails from parents to discuss grades. Even I think this a huge breech of protocol and I’m one of the biggest, crazy recovering helicopter moms there is.

So I wondered, is it ever appropriate for a parent to contact a professor?

“No,” says Ohio State Lecturer Jason Payne, “Once you are in college, you are supposed to be an adult.”

Nevertheless, Payne does receive calls, many times irate, from parents.

He recounted a story about a student athlete who turned in an assignment that consisted of a review plagiarized from a book jacket. Word for word. After Payne issued a failing grade, Mommy called up to give him a piece of her mind. She let him know that her son was a sports star and the first in the family to attend college. “How dare he” give her son such a grade.

Another parent, a college professor no less, explained to Payne that he had proofread his son’s final essay and proclaimed it a great paper. The paper was full of unsupported claims including the “fact” that AIDS wouldn’t exist in Africa if the Africans were Christian — with no evidence to back it up. The icing on this cake came a year when Payne bumped into the student and was addressed as “douchebag“.

I’m beginning to understand the lack of maturity this type of parental involvement begets, as I have met Mr. Payne and he is hardly a douchebag.

Dr. Matthew Ramsey, an Assistant Professor at Salve Regina University is not as emphatic about parental contact. When asked about the appropriateness of parental contact he said,

“It’s perfectly understandable why a parent might want to contact a professor, particularly if they can’t get any answers from their children, or from the administration. Of course, that doesn’t mean the professor is obligated to respond. I’ve always responded to parent inquiries when allowed, and although they aren’t always terribly productive discussions, I think it’s better than ignoring parent requests for information.”

Dr. Ramsey has also received e-mails from less-than-happy parents,

“I got a very long e-mail explaining why my decision to fail a student for plagiarizing was misguided, short-sighted, unfair, etc. It all came down to the claim that this parent’s child would never knowingly cheat, how great this student was, how dedicated, how hard-working and the rest. Parents have a hard time acknowledging that their children are in fact human, capable of making mistakes, stressed out a great deal of the time and sometimes willing to take shortcuts.”

Bill Sinfield, Headmaster of Good Hope Country Day School, related a whopper of story,

“During the time that I was completing my Masters of Educational Leadership at Simon Fraser University, I was waiting outside the office of the Dean of the Department of Education. I was joined by the mother of a student at the school. The lady was clearly agitated and told me that she was there to complain to the Dean about a mark her daughter had received for a Case Study that she had written. According to the mother, her daughter had been unfairly assessed because she had lost marks for poor writing skills.

“The mother’s concern was that those writing skills had been poorly taught in high school, so she should not be held responsible. She said that it was ridiculous that the university should be penalizing students for mistakes in their writing, especially since the public schools in the province were so inadequate. Note: British Columbia public schools are ranked among the best in the world.

“I let her go in to the Dean’s office before me…

“After thirty minutes of hearing through the closed door her shrieking voice and his calm but decisive responses, I knew that the Dean had made it clear that the mark would not change.

The door to his office then flung open, she rushed past me through the outer office, and her last comment was, ‘I’m going to speak to the President (presumably of the University but who knows), about this!’

“The Dean then came to his office door, and with a very strained smile on his face, said, ‘Come on in, Bill.’ When I sat down in his office, I said, ‘That sounded a bit animated.’ He couldn’t contain his exasperation, and he disclosed to me that it was the second time the women had come to him to complain about a mark that her daughter received.”

Both Payne and Ramsey have had suspicions that a parent has written an assignment for a student. Ramsey adds,

“Suspected, yes. Caught, no. And I’m pretty sure there’s no real way to prove it. Students will sometimes tell me a parent (usually a teacher or professor) helped them proofread / edit a paper or assignment, and I’m sure in some cases there might have been more parent input than is appropriate. But unlike typical cases of plagiarism or cheating, there’s very little you can do in those instances beyond reminding the student of their responsibilities, what constitutes cheating.”

Here’s where I shine, I’m just too lazy to be THAT involved.

Actually, behavior like this makes me wonder why people shell out the money for college at all. I mean, seriously, how is this helping?

A college degree may help in landing a job but I’m guessing that once the employer realizes his employee is illiterate he’ll find a replacement and Junior is sent packing. The likelihood of ending up with a boomerang “kid” is deterrent enough for me to keep my big nose out of my kid‘s school work.

So does parental interference affect a student’s development?

“Yes, of course, says Ramsey, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean the effect is negative or detrimental. I have a lot of students who are frequently given pep talks, or threatened, by their parents to keep up with their work, to attend class regularly, etc. Some of them don’t appreciate it, and kick against the traces, but it usually doesn’t affect their classroom performance. And in some instances I think that parent/child relationship has helped some of my ‘flightier’ students buckle down and stay focused.”

Says Payne,

“I believe that smothering parental behavior at the university level stifles a student’s imagination and creative thinking. The danger is that they lose a healthy sense of wonder, the immenseness of all there is to know.”

Heady stuff that. And I personally refuse to be a part of it.

Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Delve Deeper:
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YOUR TURN: You’ve heard my thoughts, what are yours? How much is too much? Is there a middle ground? Should parents have access to college students’ grades? Is it ever appropriate to contact a professor?

38 thoughts on “The Old College Pry”

  1. I teach at a college and if I had to deal with parents I wouldn’t teach at all. Seriously. There is so much disrespect for teachers now – much starting with parents. Calling a Prof a douchebag? He should be thrown out of school. Screaming in a Dean’s office? Security should escort her out. Enough.
    Yes, parents should stay out of college. Also, students who have to pay their own way generally take school more seriously.

  2. I’ve never been a so-called helicopter mom, but I do come to the defense of my kids. However now that all three of them are in college/university, all communication stops from the school, because also in Canada,as in Michigan we have similar rules. On one hand I completely agree but on the other, many of these kids are not ready for all the responsibility, i.e. bill paying. Middle child was perfectly fine managing her money when she lived at home, but a whole other story emerged when she went away to school, all of a sudden money was being spent right, left, and centre, making mom & dad come to the rescue, putting us in more debt. The answer? I have no idea.

    1. We had similar issues with our oldest and went a little tough love on her. She got so broke that she made it home for spring break penniless and hungry enough to pick up shifts at her old job over the break. She never let herself get that broke again.

  3. WHen I taught at the university level, I never spoke to a parent or guardian because I was simply not allowed to due to FERPA. I was to refer them to my boss, which I did, and she wasn’t allowed to speak to them, either. When the student waived FERPA, I did not. It’s there for me as well, and I never went into a room with a parent or guardian without a superior, nor did I ever address a parent. I just don’t play that game, and I advise everyone else not to , either. Parents will try to sue you. Protect yourzelves by staying away from them.

  4. When I was a university professor I was shocked by how many parents put themselves in the middle of a situation between student and teacher. Its a consumer attitude that invades higher education, i.e., “I’m paying a gazillion dollars for this school so as a customer I deserve satisfaction.” These parents trained their kids over the years to whine to Mom and Dad if the world wasn’t turning in their direction. Unfortunately, administrators, dept. chairs, etc. cowtowed to the parents because they are future donors.

    As for the grades, I know the rules about privacy. However, since we were funding this enterprise we expected her to give us access to her progress. We didn’t throw fits over what we saw. We just said if she failed then it was her job to explain to her grandfather why she was kicked out of college (that’s another story). And if she wasn’t putting forth adequate effort each semester then we don’t have to fund it.

    1. ” Unfortunately, administrators, dept. chairs, etc. cowtowed to the parents because they are future donors.” Interesting. That really must put professors in a difficult situation. Thank you for your thoughts – to hear from someone who can relate to the issue as a professor AND a parent is invaluable.

  5. Just dropped off my son to college two weeks ago that’s about 4 hours away from home. He’s required to attend summer school since he’s on a basketball scholarship, and then he goes to 15 credit hours in the fall. He will be so busy studying and practicing and playing games that I know I will rarely be hearing from him, and I nearly FREAKED OUT the day we left him there!!! I promised ahead of time NOT to cry in front of him about it, though, and I kept my promise. Your article was so timely because I was wondering about all those things–orientation isn’t until next month. Thank you for your refreshingly funny and informative blog!

  6. Our sons never balked at showing us their college grades—everything from a 4.0 to, uh, less than a 4.0.

    When we took our son to move in for his first year at the University of Miami, I insisted that he meet an old lawyer friend of mine, an ex Federal prosecutor who lived in Coral Gables where the school is. He complained a little about having to go out to dinner with this “random” person (although he conceded that she seemed like a very nice person). Let’s just say that he ended up being very grateful that he knew her.

  7. Such a great conversation here! The best story I heard on this topic was at my son’s freshman orientation, where one of the deans said that he had to go TELL the parents of a certain freshman that no, they couldn’t sleep in their RV in the parking lot “just to make sure everything is all right his first night.” Thank GOD college professionals don’t let us parents give in to our own worst intentions!

  8. I also recall the sheer shock of not being able to see our first chicks grades… And like you I cried all the way home from Minneapolis… 6 hours of non-stop blubbering – You are not alone.

    I can proudly state, after reading your post that I never contacted any of my child professors, nor my eldest son’s professors in NYC … And I don’t recall ever seeing any of their grades (although they did share from time to time 🙂 My youngest daughter who loves to do things backwards – have kids…get married… go to school… – Will be starting her classes in the fall. As a mom with two kids I am so proud of her for making this – in my humble opinion – very right and brave decision. And no, I’m sure I’ll never see her grades, call her professors but I may proof read a paper if she asks 🙂 Enjoyed your post.

    As a Christian, this really cracked me up “The paper was full of unsupported claims including the “fact” that AIDS wouldn’t exist in Africa if the Africans were Christian with no evidence to back it up. ..” My goodness, ignorance is so un-blissful!

    Have a great day!

  9. I am against parents getting involved…except for this: My son was falsely accused of plagiarism during his freshman year. My husband and daughter drove 8 hours to get to his school to help him navigate the bureaucracy of disputing the charge. I wrote to the college president, who responded immediately. This all occurred during the week before finals. My son would never have known how to go through this process without our guidance. He was exonerated of all accusations (it was based on an 8 word sentence in a 6 page paper, through an online plagiarism site). On a day-to-day basis calling professors to dispute grades and the like I would agree is not appropriate.

  10. I’ve got two in college and last one graduating HS this year. Can’t imagine fuddling in their grades or calling up professors. Love them dearly, but it’s their responsibility. Part of being grown up.

    So funny recently when my HS senior handed me a permission form. I signed it and wrote accompanying check. She whined that I hadn’t filled out the form (health insurance, etc.). Ha! She’s a big girl, carries her own copy of insurance card and can darn well fill out forms herself. Lesson: sometimes adults have to to tedious chores, too! 😉

    That said, I did go to bat last year as ‘THE MOMMY’ when we dropped off child #2 to the dorm. Facilities were short on toilets. I felt this was inexcusable (and not worth the $$$ we were paying). Used the story as a funny rant/User Interface experience post. You can read here, if interested.

  11. I am an academic adviser at the very university my son will be attending. I know about helicopter parents; I deal with them almost on a daily basis. Drives me nuts.

    Sadly, for my son, I can look up his grades whenever I want. I am HOPING that I can resist the urge. I already had him sign the waiver (he didn’t even ask what it was for). I’m starting to reconsider. I can actually still look them up – but I really, REALLY don’t want to be one of those parents! I am not liking this at all, but this post helped me see that it’s not always best to hover. Sometimes, they need to find out for themselves what happens when mom isn’t there to “talk to the dean.” Oy! Hard to do!

  12. God no! Let them grow up already! What if something happens to you and they are left on their own? Get your own life and don’t lay the guilt and worry over YOU fall down on them……

  13. My son’s college roommate didn’t even know how to knot a necktie! He showed up with a dozen ties, already knotted and ready to slip over hid head and tighten. His Mommy had all his socks and underwear labeled in little plastic boxes. 🙂

      1. I dunno…my son didn’t room with him the next year. Really, my son lived in filthy conditions at college, as boys will do…we went for Parents Weekend and found one of his roomie’s moms cleaning the bathroom. It was almost disgusting enough they would have broken down and cleaned it themselves soon, but she ruined it!

    1. Oh my word…. I am so laughing at this… Poor kid! He’ll be going home every weekend, summer and probably moving back home after graduation unless he majorly rebells! Let’s hope he rebells and cuts all the neckties into tiny pieces and makes a beautiful mosaic!

  14. ABSOLUTELY NOT! For one thing, it’s really none of our business (even if we are paying the bill; that’s OUR problem, no one says we have to) and secondly, why would we want to do that to ourselves??? You raise them, you shoo them away, you offer support in any way you can, but why torture yourself?

  15. My sister, the Director of Admissions and Registrar for a university, would tell you – NO NO NO!!! Don’t call. We can’t tell you and, yes, we realize that you pay the bills. 🙂

  16. There’s this woman who writes an “empty nest” blog on my hometown paper’s website, and she’s always wringing her hands over her son’s choices. He is now a junior in college. Aside from the fact that this public hand-wringing has to be an em…barrassment for the young man, her continual intervention and “rescue” is doing him no favors. I speak from experience. I was coddled far too much, far too late and it took a long long time for me to grow up. Y’all have the right idea, but then you know that.

    1. When I left home I was never allowed to return. I got luggage for my high school graduation. I felt pretty alone and scared at the time but I survived… Better than being coddled I am sure.

  17. My personal feeling is that if I am going to pay for the college education, I am darn well going to see the grades! My kids expect that and I do not feel it impinges even slightly on their burgeoning adulthood. But their grades are between them and their professors and I wouldn’t dream of contacting a professor, much less a Dean, to discuss them.

  18. All I can say is thank God, both of ours are college graduates. I can’t recall if we got their grades or not, actually. What a saga! molly

  19. I have one son in his junior year of college. You better believe we can see his grades. We insisted on that at sign-up his freshman year, before he could think about it. He lives away at school and has been through all the ups and downs of being on his own. The school work and grades, we felt, required some accountability on his part. We’re proud of the man our son has become. But he’ll always be my Bubby 😉

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