New Data on Family Engagement & Services

I’m pleased that the 2021 Family Engagement and Services at Colleges and Universities – our 10th biennial survey – is now available! Each time we post a new report for that survey, I can’t help but think back to the first effort in 2003 and consider how much has changed. In 2003, we parent/family practitioners were still in the early stages of finding each other. Our main source of connection was at the annual APPI conference (Administrators Promoting Parent Involvement), hosted by Susan Brown at Northwestern University. (The first conference was in 1998). Aside from that, we were trying to track each other down at NODA conferences, or we were stalking one another at NASPA and ACPA, hunting for any programs that related to parents and hoping to meet someone who did what we do.

What we knew in 2003:

  • Thanks to APPI, we already had figured out that there was no one way to provide parent services. Some programs were put in place to raise money through a parents council; some were dedicated to presenting family orientation. Some were closely connected to athletics and were focused on bringing families to campus to fill a football stadium for a low-attendance game on a parents weekend. 

  • We all came from different professional backgrounds and most of us were “gifted” a position in parent/family services to supplement whatever our “real job” was. Few schools had a full-time position devoted to families, and the majority of us worked half time or less with families.

  • Our reporting lines ranged from Student Affairs to Alumni or Advancement offices, Admissions, or the President’s office. (That hasn’t changed much!) At a faith-based school, the parent/family program might be the responsibility of the liaison to the faith community. One school’s parent staff were faculty who happened to think parents were important, and another school housed their parent services in a career office. For the most part, parent services were delegated to whatever office first decided they were valuable.

  • We were pretty sure that, for most of us, our jobs were created in response to FERPA. Someone had to be responsible for explaining to parents why they couldn’t have access to their student’s grades and bills.

What we learned from the first surveys:
  • We were all learning on the job. Most of us were newbies in terms of working with parents. Our best credentials for our position seemed to be looking like we were at least the age of a college parent and having put one or more students through college. Those professionals who were younger than their audience of parents–or who didn’t have children–struggled with convincing families that they knew what they were talking about. We needed to figure out how to change that dynamic, because, quite honestly, age and parenting experience really were not reliable qualifications. Some of our younger colleagues were the most likely to have the student affairs knowledge and experience that we more mature folks needed.

  • We needed to define a role for parents and families during their students’ college experience, and we needed to identify the services and programming that could support that role. We also had to learn how to articulate those expectations to families and to our campus communities.

  • Professional standards also had to be defined, and the value of our work had to be clear. The range of pay among us was vast, with lows at $30,000 or less. Even 20 years ago, that was a meager salary. While there were survey respondents making $80,000 or more, those individuals were generally the vice presidents or deans who had parents in their portfolio, but whose title indicated a senior position. To complicate matters even more, many of us worked with paltry budgets, or even no allocated budget at all. 

Looking back now:
  • Things could change significantly within the two year span between surveys, but the real changes have taken time. What I think we can be most proud of are the development of CAS Standards for parent/family programs and the formation of a professional organization.

  • We used the survey to help define common practices, and we learned from respondents what they wanted and needed to support both their program development and their professional development. We asked about conference timing, topics, and speakers, and we used that information to develop our early conferences. 

  • We heard from our colleagues that the survey helped them make the case for redefining their position title, increasing their salary, and firming up a program budget. Having data from a national survey matters.

Looking forward:

  • I am gratified that younger professionals face less age discrimination now, and I believe it comes in part by being able to articulate clearly what we all have learned about family engagement as it relates to college student development. Most of that comes from the programs provided by the programming and the connections that AHEPPP provides, but some of it comes from our relentless research. 
  • I believe that to some extent, when you sit down to respond to the survey (and when you read the survey reports), you get the language and the incentive to talk about the results with other parent/family professionals about this field you work in. I think it helps us all connect as part of a community of inquiry.

  • I introduced the survey at the University of Minnesota, but it gained ground when Chelsea Petree came to my office as a graduate student. She gave it a scholar’s credibility, and it was an easy decision to turn it over to her when she went to Rochester Institute of Technology. It’s now jointly housed at RIT and AHEPPP, which is the right place for it.

  • This year’s survey was conducted in the midst of the COVID pandemic, and like just about everything else, the survey had to change. We asked additional questions in order to capture a moment in time when our families–and all of you–were making adjustments that are likely to change parent/family programs in the future. 

  • Although we’re still a relatively new professional association, we have more data than most higher education associations on how we have grown as an organization and how our programs and our professionals have developed over time. 

Thanks to all for responding to the 2021 survey! As you read through the report, please think about how you can use the information now and what questions you might suggest for the next one. We’re all still learning.

Marjorie Savage is a founding member of AHEPPP: Family Engagement in Higher Education. She is the author of a highly-regarded book for parents called You're on Your Own (But I'm Here If You Need Me) and a researcher and advocate for family engagement.

AHEPPP members have access to the 2021 study and all previous studies. Click here to login and access.

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