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The Parent Factor


Some days, Mary Desler, Northwestern’s dean of student affairs, gets as many as 20 calls from parents.

One she heard from recently asked, “Will you find out if my daughter is safe? I haven’t heard from her for two days.”

That is a call the dean believes never would have been made in the late ’60s, when she graduated from college. But “technology has changed everything,” she says. “Now there is 24-hour access.” And if a daughter with a cell phone hasn’t phoned home for two days, well, could there be a problem?

Some things, the dean points out, don’t change on campus. “The first year is a year of adjustment. The students are getting used to being away from home and doing things for themselves.”

But now, she notes, parents often step in. “What the books tell us,” says Desler, “is that this generation of students has been heavily scheduled, their parents have carted them around to soccer and ballet, and they may be the products of day care and double-career marriages.” That may explain, in part, she says, the intense involvement of parents in their student’s life on campus.

Desler gets “Daddy, fix this” calls from some parents of this current crop of “millennial” students. “There are some who would say the millennial parents are distrustful of authority, of systems of institutions, [because they witnessed] the Vietnam War era, when nobody trusted anybody who was part of an institution,” says the dean.

According to Jen Meyers, coordinator of orientation for new students and parent programs, “there is also the customer service aspect. Some parents are paying as much as $43,000 a year for their students to go to this institution, and they want [action] now.”

Meyers, who works closely with the dean, says the millennials and their parents are partners in what she calls the “we” culture. “Parents call me and say, ‘Where do we find this form?’ or ‘We missed this deadline,’ or ‘Can we move in early?’ [The students] let mom and dad take care of details and they show up and go to school.”

Meyers relates an incident she heard about a student who complained in the fall that she was having a problem with her roommate. The problem was “not exactly with the roommate,” according to Meyers, but rather with the roommate’s mother, who had been sleeping on the floor in her daughter’s room during New Student Week. “She got the boot,” says Meyers.

Desler adds that a few parents “at the far end of the spectrum” are moving to communities where their kids are going to college.

The dean says she doesn’t remember her parents “ever intervening at my institution on my behalf. They put me on a bus and sent me off to college. I got a letter a month.”

She adds that although today’s “helicopter” parents “question our decisions,” they can also be very helpful. “If you learn to partner with them, they can be extraordinary resources in solving problems.” — A.T

Jen Meyers, left, and Mary Desler
Jen Meyers, left, and Mary Desler Photo by Andrew Campbell