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How to take advantage of parent and family programs at your child's college

Parent and family programs are designed to help families navigate their student’s transition to and throughout college.
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At the beginning of and during your student’s college years, you will likely have a lot of questions. As much as you want to be helpful, you might not have all of the tools you need to best support your student at this time. But parent programs do! Parent programs at a university or college are designed to help parents and families navigate their student’s transition to and throughout college. Brian L. Watkins, director of parent and family affairs at the University of Maryland, emphasizes the important supportive role families play in the lives of their students, whether they are paying for college or not.

“For many students, parents and other supportive family members are instrumental in getting them where they are emotionally. That doesn’t stop just because their student comes to college,” Watkins says. “How can we help parents and families have the information they need about what’s happening at the university so they can continue to be a good support system while their student is in college? That’s what we do, that’s where we come in.”

Parent programs at colleges and universities are continuing to develop and grow with each passing year. Marjorie Savage found in her 2015 National Survey of College and University Parent Programs that the ways in which schools can communicate with parents have expanded through technology. At the same time, in-person contact has increased as parent/family orientation, parent/family weekends, and other events have grown in popularity.

Parent programs are meant to be the go-to resource for parents on campus. Stephanie Benson-Gonzales, Assistant Director of Parent Relations and Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says they want parents to be informed, but also help parents learn to give their students the reins. “We know it’s important that students learn self-advocacy and to take initiative. So we help parents reframe questions like, ‘How do I schedule X for my student?’ We say ‘Your student should meet with their advisor.’ We give them tools to empower their students to take action,” Benson-Gonzales says. These tools can help you support your student throughout their college years. Here are some of the ways you can best utilize the parent programs at your student’s college or university.

Parent/family website

One of the easiest places to start when looking at parent resources at your student’s school is the parent website. Many schools now have a site dedicated to parents and families. If your student’s school does have a parent/family website, it is a great start to navigating all of the resources provided for parents and families, including important dates and safety information. If you cannot find a website, Savage recommends asking your contact person in the admissions office where they can find information about guiding your student’s transition to college.

Parent/family orientation

You likely know all about your student’s orientation their first year of college, but many colleges now have parent/family orientations, too. The new student orientation is often a parent’s first experience of letting their student go. Orientations usually have programming dedicated to parents while the students have their own experiences. This can be your initial introduction to the school’s campus, health information, safety resources, housing and much more. “Our relationship with parents starts at orientation and continues throughout the student’s time at the university,” Watkins says.

Parent/family calendar

While the parent website is an excellent resource for important information about the school, many schools provide a parent calendar that they hand out at orientation or in PDF form that you can print online. This will generally provide key dates, important numbers, and a general guide to the student experience over the course of the academic year. Here are some examples of these calendars from the University of San Diego, Bismarck State, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These are ways for parents to keep up with what is happening on campus. If your student’s school does not have a calendar, ask about other information or handbooks provided for parents.


With the growth of parent programs, it is easier for parents to have a dedicated place to call or email with questions. Let’s face it, calling every department on campus trying to get an answer to your question is not fun for anyone. Parent programs can be a great one-stop shop. Many parent programs will have phone and/or email services. Benson-Gonzales says parents appreciate feeling like they can call someone to answer their questions or talk through concerns. She says the program at UW-Madison and many other parent programs across the country are really good at developing partnerships and connections to different departments at the college. “We know we’re not the expert on all topics so we rely heavily on relationships with colleagues across campus,” Benson-Gonzales says. For example, if you have a specific question about your student’s health that the parent program cannot answer, they can direct you to the appropriate person in the health office. Watkins say parents often are not sure what to ask, so having a place to call is important. “Oftentimes parents don’t know what they don’t know,” Watkins says. “We focus on demystifying the college process itself. This is their home at the university.”

Parent/family newsletter

Many schools provide parents with a monthly newsletter to keep them up-to-date on campus life. This can come in print or email or both. This information is very useful, as it is tailored to parents and the key highlights of the month. Benson-Gonzales says there are important differences in the way that schools communicate with students and with parents. “Students need all the information,” she says. “Parents don’t need to get everything the student gets, too, but they do need some information tailored to how they can support their student’s success.” Newsletters are a great way to stay up-to-date without being overly involved.

Social media

Beyond more traditional means of communication, many parents like using social media to connect with their student’s college and other parents. According to Savage’s 2015 survey, “since 2009, the number of institutions hosting social media sites for parents and families has grown from about half to more than 80-percent. “Now more than ever, folks are coming to Facebook,” Benson-Gonzales says. “They don’t want to just connect with the institution; they also want to connect with other families.” A lot of schools will have Facebook groups dedicated to parents of students at the college, which can be a great way to ask questions and share experiences with other families.

Parent/family organizations and associations

Many colleges and universities have parent organizations or associations. These groups generally function similarly to PTAs in high school as a group of parents that advocate for students and are invested in the school. They can sometimes serve as advisory boards for the college or university and are generally a good way to engage with other parents.

Parent/family weekend

Parent/family weekends are a designated weekend during the academic year where parents can come and experience campus life with their students. More than just a visit, this weekend is usually full of activities and programming designed to engage parents and connect them with the campus. Examples of activities include athletic events, student performances, lectures, open houses, and more special events. Many parent programs will put on these weekends in collaboration with other departments on campus.

These programs will different greatly from school to school. Remember, while it’s excellent to be engaged in your student’s college experience, you are now transitioning to letting them manage their studies and life. Parent programs can be helpful in navigating this time of life for you and your student. “It’s an evolution,” Benson-Gonzales says. “This transition is a process that we help coach parents through.”

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Brian Watkins, Director, Office of Parent and Family Affairs, University of Maryland; Stephanie Benson-Gonzalez, Assistant Director, Parent Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Marjorie Savage, Education Specialist, University of Minnesota.