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New program to help parents of students stay connected

May 15, 2007 By Brian Mattmiller

Going “off to college” no longer means falling off the parental radar for the vast majority of today’s undergraduates. In fact, a 2007 study found that students and their parents talk by phone an average of once each day.

Photo of tour guide Ryan Woodhouse leading a tour

Visitor and Information Programs tour guide Ryan Woodhouse leads a group of prospective students and their families past the Mosse Humanities building during a campus tour on May 4.

Photo: Jeff Miller

Given the increasing desire for parental connection to their son or daughter’s college experience and more students wanting their parents involved, UW–Madison is launching a major upgrade of its communication efforts and support services for parents. The new UW–Madison Parent Program, which debuts this summer, will take more active steps to keep parents informed about key college milestones and provide bulletins on urgent campus issues and a central point of contact for existing parent services.

Nancy Sandhu, assistant director of Visitor and Information Programs and director of the Parent Program, says that a 2005 UW–Madison survey of parents indicated that more support was needed.

“The survey found that parents overwhelmingly had a good experience with the campus during the admissions process, the campus visits process, and through the summer orientation,” Sandhu says. “But they truly — and this was a theme — felt like they dropped off the map after the freshman year started.”

Since that time, Sandhu and an extensive advisory group have been looking into ways to help parents play a more active and constructive role in supporting the success of their college-bound son or daughter. A series of new communications initiatives will begin rolling out this summer, including:

  • A Parent Program Web site (, which will go live on June 4. The site will serve as a portal that draws together scores of online links that currently serve parents on common issues of concern, including campus safety, on- and off-campus housing, key dates, choosing majors and news updates on campus life.
  • A monthly newsletter, which will debut this fall in both print and electronic formats. This service will provide news and features, timely tips on how parents can support their students’ academic success, and upcoming events of interest.
  • Parent Notices, also starting this fall, that will be sent as needed to provide parents with information on more urgent matters, such as critical campus announcements. Parents may also choose e-mail or regular mail for this service.
  • A Parent Hotline and e-mail service, starting in June. These services are meant to provide a personalized service for parents, giving them direct contact with a staff member from the Parent Program. The numbers are 877-262-3977 toll-free and 608-262-3977 locally; the e-mail is

“With the newsletter and Web site, we are trying to be proactive, rather than reactive,” Sandhu says. “And by doing that, we think we are going to put parents in a better position to help their students, yet also cut down on the frustration and disconnect they may feel.

A Visitor and Information Programs sign welcomes new students.

A Visitor and Information Programs sign outside of the Armory and Gymnasium welcomes new students.

Photo: Jeff Miller

“The e-mail and hotline are really a gateway for parents to get their questions answered,” she adds, “but it may also be a way to coach parents on how they can help their students succeed.”

In the era of the so-called “helicopter parent,” which refers to parents who hover (sometimes inappropriately) around the everyday lives of their adult children, most parents are striving to insert themselves in helpful ways, yet not go too far, Sandhu says. They don’t want to be the extreme examples of parents who call professors about grades or show up at career fairs. Parents serve key roles as mentors and coaches, but need to understand “when to step in and when to step back” to support their child’s development.

There are also limitations to how much information parents can legally access regarding their students. Sandhu says the new communication modes can do a better job of explaining the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), both of which guarantee a student’s right to confidentiality of academic and health records.

There are many reasons why parental interest is increasing, not the least of which is their financial stake in a successful college experience. “It’s a bigger investment now, and parents want to make sure they get a return on their investment. They want their student to graduate in four years and be prepared for today’s competitive job market.”

According to a 2004 survey conducted by the University of Minnesota, information of interest to parents changes over time. Parents of freshmen are more interested in issues regarding student health and safety, academics and finances. At the same time, parents of seniors are most interested in information regarding career services, followed by health and safety and finance issues.

Other frequently cited concerns from parents involve living off-campus and lease arrangements, personal finances and credit card debt, drug and alcohol consumption and related campus policies, and summer internship opportunities.

“A lot of this information already exists online, but parents may have trouble locating it,” Sandhu says. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we do need a better job of packaging information that will put these resources at parents’ fingertips.”

The early success of this new program will rely heavily on parents’ awareness that it exists. To that end, the Parent Program will be a featured session in the upcoming Student Orientation, Advising, & Registration (SOAR) programs that start on June 7 and run through much of the summer. Parents will be given a self-addressed card and encouraged to sign up for the communications tools via home or e-mail addresses. Current students who think their parents might be interested are also encouraged to forward the Web site and e-mail address.

The Parent Program was made a priority with the help of financial support from the Office of the Chancellor. Key partners in the program include the Office of the Bursar, the Council of Academic Advisers, the Offices of the Dean of Students, the Office of Enrollment Management, the Office of the Provost, University Communications, University Health Services, University Housing and the Wisconsin Alumni Association.