There was an interesting piece several days ago on the Washington Post’s web site  about the increasing presence and influence of “helicopter parents” in the world of higher education. For the uninitiated, “helicopter parent” is a term used to describe the growing trend of people who over-parent, over-protect and over-participate in their child(ren)’s education to a suffocating degree. This trend has been talked about a lot lately, especially with regard to the parents of college students.

The Washington Post piece cites a survey of college admissions officers conducted by Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions in which 77% of the admissions officers reported that parental involvement is increasing at their schools. Sixty-one percent of the survey respondents said they were developing new programs specifically for parents.

RMS has conducted many research studies for colleges and universities and a number of our clients have indicated to us that parent involvement is indeed a growing trend, and one to which they have had to adapt. One can argue that helicopter parenting is a negative development, but realistically it appears to be a function of generational attitudes, and therefore won’t be going away any time soon.

Whether schools want to mitigate the effects of helicopter parents, or accommodate them, they cannot be simply ignored. The reality is that colleges and universities have to adapt to the growing influence of parents in everything that they do, and that includes their market research efforts. For example, many colleges regularly measure student satisfaction through surveys and other research methods, but how many research efforts seek to measure parental satisfaction with the college? The same idea applies to student housing research. Colleges may ask students what kind of housing they want to live in, but it is also important to get input on some level to determine what kind of housing parents will agree to pay for or will try to steer their children toward. In general, colleges should consider doing the following when conducting market research in the Helicopter Parent Era:

  1. Measure the degree to which parents influence student decisions and attitudes across the whole spectrum of college services including admissions, financial aid, housing, choice of major, etc.
  2. Determine the extent to which parent and student priorities diverge from one another. This will help the college to determine the best course of action to deal with the parental influence.
  3. Use market research to find ways that parents can be engaged and involved without crossing the line into meddling or suffocating. To some extent, the mere fact that the school is seeking input from parents through surveys, focus groups or an in-depth interview may satisfy some (but certainly not all!) parents’ need to have a say in their children’s education.
  4. Conduct internal market research and evaluation to ensure that front-line staff has been properly trained to deal with the unique challenges presented by the helicopter parent. Mystery shopping could be used for this type of effort.

Those are just a few ideas. The main thing colleges and universities need to keep in mind is that helicopter parents are just one new wrinkle in an ever-changing, higher education landscape. Like any other variable that can influence the student experience, their impact should be measured and planned for, rather than simply hoping the issue goes away.