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Navigating the Helicopter Parent Trap

For spring, graduation carries with it nostalgic memories of high school life and new hopes and aspirations for higher learning.
University Business, July 2015

Helicopter parents celebrate commencement with pride and increasing expectations of their kids’ academic achievements and career preparedness. These lofty expectations are justified - given degree inflation, spiraling tuition and fees, and mounting family debt. Naturally, parents want to believe their children’s college and university experience will translate into gainful employment and career advancement.

As helicopter parents pay their tuition deposits and gaze in the rearview mirror of buyer’s remorse, one wonders who will coach the helicopter parents who are trying to coach their kids into their college of choice.

According to Bloomberg, the test prep market has more than doubled over the past 15 years. There are now more than 11,000 test prep centers operating in the U.S. with a market value worth billions. Though the effectiveness of test prep may be debatable, our research says that earlier is better for getting kids ready for college – read as middle school early college awareness and career shadowing.

A California State University at Fresno study reported that over-parenting can actually misguide children because kids sometimes need to learn on their own to establish a natural sense of intellectual curiosity and independence which are critically important to scholarship promise and academic achievement. At the same time, we see on the research horizon new ways of knowledge transfer, skills development, assessment, and testing to ease the worries of helicopter parents – no longer exclusively dependent on the SAT.

We learned from The Princeton Education Network COO Perry Kalmus, that his new company, AKALA, approaches helicopter parents by reaching out and enabling them in the college readiness learning exploration and discovery process. This proactive and intentional coaching has proven to increase the likelihood for college admissions and academic success. Uniquely, the AKALA system, currently under construction, deploys a highly interactive process to anticipate and position students in the formative pathways to college admissions. By working with students and parents to set up a plan about which courses to take, which student life and athletic activities to join, which service learning opportunities to embrace, and which advanced placement and aptitude tests to study for, students achieve valuable college readiness skills and gain an advantage in the recruitment and admissions process. In the view of some higher ed commentators, the traditional SAT prep companies capitalize on parental naiveté about the college admissions process. Through our background interviews, we discovered that there are no gimmicks, tricks, or shortcuts to aptitude test taking – one must simply master the skills necessary to succeed for lifelong learning. Increasingly, students and parents base their college prep regiments around carefully structured skill sets – and importantly create opportunities for early and mid-course corrective actions that remediate and develop college readiness.

Helicopter parents and students also benefit from pre-college summer programs. These days, colleges and universities offer freshman experiences that introduce aspiring students to academics, housing, campus life, and being away from home. Through these campus orientation sessions, students focus on areas of career interest to help winnow the pool of potential majors. Students also earn strong evaluations, nominations, and testimonials from faculty and staff which give them an edge on college admissions.

At the end of the day, Kalmus accurately states that “rather than try to fix the problems in our education system, we are adapting our assessments to align with our decreasing level of intelligence. Rather than train teachers to be better teachers, to understand how what they are teaching in the classroom directly relates to what is showing up on the SAT (and it really does), we are instead changing the test to dumb it down for our nation”. Helicopter parents need to chill out and seek out coaching and in the process, avoid being too entangled in the lives of their children.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost's Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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