Colleges’ ties with parent groups growing

Susan Jennings Lantz recalls just how involved her mom and dad were in her education at West Virginia University during the 1980s.

“My parents dropped me off, waved goodbye and that was that,” she says.

Things are different today, as Lantz is well aware. As WVU’s parent advocate – a salaried position at the Morgantown school – Lantz fields up to 4,000 calls a year to the school’s Parents Club Helpline, asking about everything from roommate problems to transportation glitches to billing questions.

Like other educators and college administrators, she sees parents taking an increasingly activist role on campuses across the country. One nonprofit group, College Parents of America, is in the early stages of a membership campaign aimed at mimicking the growth and lobbying success of AARP.

Many parents figure that if they’re spending thousands of dollars on their child’s education, they ought to have a voice, experts say. But there’s more, says Lantz.

“These were the first kids to get the ‘Baby on Board’ signs,” she says. “Their parents have been very active with them in elementary, middle and high school. They are soccer moms who aren’t ready to release.

“It’s not just the parents that are involved, a lot of students want their parents involved, too.”

This summer, Jim Boyle became president of College Parents of America with the goal of raising the profile of the 900-member group, not quite a decade old, by increasing membership and lobbying.

For fees ranging from $18 to $26, Boyle intends for the group to provide an array of services, including answering questions for the parents of middle and high school students about college savings, financial aid and applications. In the style of the AARP, Boyle envisions his organization lobbying Congress on issues such as tuition tax credits.

The group is also working to provide parents of college students material on topics ranging from binge drinking to credit card abuse.

“A growing number of schools understand that a parent simply going away once they drop their child off at school is not an option anymore,” Boyle says.

“It’s important to view the family, not just the student, and to communicate with the family every step of the way.”

In many ways, parents have already opened those lines of communication with colleges and universities:

• At West Virginia, concerns about transportation raised by the 11,000-member Mountaineer Parents Club persuaded the school to establish a shuttle between the Morgantown campus and Pittsburgh International Airport.

• When a father worried that that his daughter’s car might break down on trips between her home and Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, the OSU Parent’s Association responded by enlisting local mechanics and car dealerships to provide free automobile maintenance checks to students before major holidays.

• At Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., 105 parents have signed up for a second-year program that encourages them to read and learn, via Internet postings by professors, about many of the same books their children are studying in the first-year core curriculum, including Homer’s “Odyssey” and Plato’s “Symposium.”

“If our parents are well-informed about policies and where to refer their children in certain situations, they can be our partners rather than our adversaries,” says Belinda Marner, the assistant vice president for student services at the University of Iowa.

Some 80 percent of the parents who contact West Virginia’s helpline have general questions regarding tuition, fee payments and campus regulations, Lantz says. Federal privacy law prohibits her from disclosing certain personal information, including grades.

Then there are the few calls that defy definition, like the day a mother called and said her son wasn’t breathing. Lantz called the student and, to her relief, he answered the phone.

“I thought that was a good sign,” she said. “He just had a cold.”

Lantz arranged for him to visit the student health center.

On the Net:

College Parents of America:

AP-ES-11-28-03 1649EST

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