Culture

Should Colleges Have Parent-Teacher Conferences?

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So you dropped your son or daughter off at college at the end of August. If you’re lucky, you’re receiving regular calls telling you all about college life, classes, and life in the dorm. Or, if you’re like most parents — or the parents of a male offspring — you’re lucky to get a text now and then asking for money or the Amazon password.

Some kids will breeze through their freshman year, both socially and academically — they were made for college life. Other students will struggle during their first semester. It’s not easy living with a total stranger, let alone a whole dorm full of them (some of whom, let’s face it, are practically sociopaths). Some kids will also struggle academically. Whether or not they’re prepared for college academically and socially, the freshman year can be fraught with challenges.

As a parent, how do you know if your kid is OK?

You dropped your son or daughter off at the college gates and it’s as if you’re not supposed to care — the kids are adults now and on their own. You suddenly became completely irrelevant. Thanks to federal privacy regulations, even though you’re paying for your child’s education, you’re not allowed to know anything about it. You’re prohibited from knowing if he is failing or excelling and prohibited from even having a conversation with his professors.

While we don’t want to be helicopter parents and we want to give our kids the opportunity to sink or swim without our interference, is there any role at all for parents in the college education process?

I say there is, and so does Hillsdale College.

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We recently received our packet in the mail for Hillsdale College Parents Weekend. The weekend usually includes mixers for parents and students, a football game, a concert or a play and a luncheon with the school’s president, Dr. Larry Arnn. Overall, the weekend is fairly typical and probably not much different than what you’d find at a thousand other schools across the country.

One activity, however, sets Hillsdale apart from many — probably most — colleges in the country:

Besides the reunion with your child, the highlight of the weekend will most likely be your Saturday morning parent conferences with our own excellent faculty. This is a productive time when you can share thoughts about your student’s progress with his or her professors and it provides a unique opportunity for you to visit one-on-one with them.

No, I am not making this up. At an institution of higher education in the United States in the year 2013, parents sit down with college professors and discuss their kids’ progress in class.

The school’s website says that “they are structured so that parents can meet with their students’ instructors to hear the positive and the challenging aspects of their students’ academic efforts.”

The school provides a lovely continental breakfast as parents await their scheduled times to meet with the professors — ten minutes per meeting. Student bell-ringers walk through the halls to let everyone know when it’s time to rotate.

The conferences vary by professor. Some come armed with grade books and recent exams to show to the parents, others prefer to have a less structured conversation.

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Over our son’s last four years at Hillsdale we have enjoyed many such conversations with professors — though I’ll confess, there are a few I’d prefer to forget. “Pursuing truth” is part of Hillsdale’s mission and in our experience, the professors don’t seem to think that raising your son or daughter’s self-esteem really furthers that mission. The worst conference began with something like, “We have a problem,” and went downhill from there. Though it was a difficult conversation (as was the conversation that followed with our son), it was an important step in helping him to succeed in the challenging academic environment at Hillsdale. These conversations eventually led to his diagnosis of dyslexia, which challenged him to work harder. As parents, it helped to ease our  minds to hear from his professors halfway through every semester that all was well.

The school’s mission is to combine an academic education with moral and social instruction that will “develop the minds and improve the hearts of its pupils.” In one of my favorite conferences the professor asked, “What would you like me to know about your son?” and asked what he could do to help him succeed. This exemplifies the spirit of the parent conferences at Hillsdale, which emphasize the important role of family support in higher education, beyond mere financial contributions. The student’s education should be viewed as a team effort between the student, the school, and the parents, who still have an important role in the lives of their children (who, it should be noted, still depend on their parents for support).

Could — or should — other colleges have parent conferences with professors? Obviously, such an undertaking would not be practical at a large university with tens of thousands of students and class sizes numbering in the hundreds. Hillsdale’s 10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio lends itself to close personal relationships between the students and professors. In addition, Hillsdale does not accept federal or state taxpayer subsidies for any of its operations. Because of that, they can avoid the federal regulations that prohibit professors from talking to parents.

But schools that want to promote a higher level of family support for their students should consider conferences. Schools could work around the privacy regulations by having  their students sign privacy waivers. Christian schools, in particular should consider conferences, as the concept would likely be in line with the schools’ family values policies. Perhaps the biggest obstacle will be changing the attitudes of the students, the parents, and the faculty, most of whom have been taught — or conditioned to believe —  that parents must relinquish all influence they have upon the lives of their children to the college faculty the minute they drop their kids off at school.  Instead, they should be encouraged to view the college experience as a partnership in which the students will greatly benefit from parental support and input.