What Professors Wish Parents Knew about College

I cannot speak for every college professor, but teaching in higher education for the last twenty four years gives me some credibility on the topic. In my career, I taught upper and lower division English courses for large public universities, community colleges, and small private liberal arts universities. Every fall ushers in a new class of freshmen and every winter ushers out 25-50% of those same kids. I estimate roughly 5000 students have crossed my path, probably a few more. I personally flunked about 10% of those, maybe more.

It seems crazy in those terms. I flunked five hundred students. Most knew the end loomed because one cannot skip most classes and fail to turn in assignments and expect to pass. Some couldn’t make the leap from high school to college because they lacked the internal discipline to do their work. Without a parent bearing down, they succumbed to the lure of late nights, dorm parties, and too much free time. Still others attended only because their parents expected them to be there… and it didn’t take a psychic to see that rebellion and subsequent drop outs loomed in their future.

So here is my two cents on the college experience.

I wish I could give you a magic formula that would make your son or daughter successful in college, but see, in the end it isn’t up to me nor is it under your control.

So these principles are just that; principles. Hard and fast rules about human nature usually fail, so take these under advisement as you begin the process of handing your son or daughter off to an institution of higher learning.

Principle # 1: Their education does not belong to you. You may be paying for all or part of it, but their education stopped being about you somewhere in middle school, maybe earlier. I have so far taken six kids of my own through high school, three all the way through college, two still in college and one as far as her PhD. Each has different learning styles; some have ADHD, and some took longer than others to figure out what they collegewanted to do. If you have not turned over to them the basic responsibility for their own education by the time they graduate from high school, or if they failed to take on that responsibility for themselves, chances are they will not make it. If they do not possess the internal drive to get to class and get their work done, if they don’t have a desire to learn, they aren’t ready…yet. A year or two working for minimum wage imparts discipline and a desire for more. Taking a year between high school and college might save you and your kid thousands of dollars.

Principle #2: The moment you take it on yourself to complain to a professor about your adult son or daughter’s grade is the moment that professor stops taking your child seriously. This is not high school or middle school any more. Professors are under no obligation to discuss grades with you even if you have the FERPA agreement signed which gives you access to your kid’s grades. At least thirty times in twenty four years parents come to me to argue about a grade. None of those encounters have proven successful for them. However, when students come to me asking for help or to redo a paper, I often agree. After all, I care about whether they learn. Their grade is something they earn. I don’t have a stake in their grade. I just calculate the numbers. They are adults. Let them act like it.

Principle #3: Helping your son or daughter with homework is now called cheating. My worst case scenario was when a mother called about her son’s failing paper. He did not include a works cited page. She informed me that she had forgotten to include it when she wrote his paper and didn’t think he should be penalized for her mistake. Every college and collegeuniversity these days has free tutoring with people trained to help educate students. In middle school and high school, parents tend to be hands on. Depending on the child, that may work or end in Junior always relying on others to complete his work. If you don’t let him or her stand on his or her own two feet now, when are you? So ante up the $11 a month for grammarly.com and refer them the Student Learning Center. They got this. And if they don’t, better to learn that sooner than later.


Principle #3: Education does not exist for the sole purpose of guaranteeing a career. This is unpopular to say right now. After all a record number of college grads live at home with parents. This economic fact does not change, nor should it change, the basic purpose for attending a university, which is education. If you are sending them to college for a job, send them to tech school. They will get a job out of there, because they exist in order to train people for specific jobs, but don’t mistake training for higher education. On the other hand, if Junior is artistic, or never stops reading, or is really into robots, he needs college. If Daisy constantly analyzes the news, loves tutoring kids, or dreams about being a doctor, she needs college. Higher education is about exposing minds to a great many disciplines and ideas, not so they can say they are educated.

Being educated means you have the ability to make connections between a wide range of subjects.Making new connections, i.e. having bona fide ideas, can change the world.

Principle #4: You’re fired. Ouch. The process of individuation is painful, but absolutely necessary. It is a natural and crucial stage in the emotional and intellectual maturing of a young adult to stand apart from his or her parents in order to evaluate the belief system they grew up with. In college, we professors often call it ‘hitting the wall’. A young man or woman will go collegethrough an identity crisis as they separate out what they learned from their parents and feel panicked. They question what beliefs are theirs and which ones are their parent’s. Parents see this and are convinced that professors are the devil, seducing them with their seditious ideas. By senior year, belief systems are usually intact again, but this time those systems reside where they belong, in the hearts and minds of the students.

Carefully picking only schools or professors that agree with everything you agree with might postpone this maturing, but it will not prevent it. I am not saying that school choice is not important, merely that I observe this phenomenon every year at every type of school, whether liberal public university or small private Christian institution. Personally I like small institutions because professors will take the time out to hash out this process with students, acting as mentors in the best sense.

But make no mistake, in order for a young man or woman to become everything they need to be, your role in their lives will change.

If you resist this, you risk alienation. Make the process easier by trusting them and trusting that the time and love you put into them will bear fruit.

So as you pack up everything they need for their dorms and feel a little weepy at the end of an era, remember that they still need you. The same pitfalls you worried about in high school exist in college at a higher level. Drugs, bad relationships, and foolish decisions still hover out there. Your kids need you now, but at a distance.

They need you to be the home base where they can come to recover from all the adversities out there.

Be there for them. Just don’t try to do it for them.



10 Replies to “What Professors Wish Parents Knew about College”

  1. If my child is having problems in school, I never blame the teacher, in fact I will work with the teacher to get them back on track

  2. It’s an effort betw3een parent, son or daughter, and professors!

  3. Elizabeth Hindman says: Reply

    Couldn’t say it better myself…after many years teaching both college and high school. Sitting in a chair in class does not guarantee an education. The student must be self motivated….but the student also needs encouragement and the conviction that he or she can succeed with effort.

  4. Such an insightful post! I think it’s a great idea to give them a year or two between high school and college to taste the minimum wage life. Will truly make them appreciate moving up if they so choose. These are all invaluable tips, Alice!!

  5. susanhomeschooling says: Reply

    It’s true; college students need to take full responsibility for their own lives, their homework, and the management of their own time. They can’t become successful adults if we do not allow them to be separate individuals.

  6. This article is definitely food for thought. I did not go to University (at least not yet-who knows what the future holds) but when I went to Bible College I did not even think about calling and asking my parents for help with my grades. The truth is, I did struggle in some of my classes and I don’t even think I told my parents about it. After all, what were they supposed to do?

  7. This is a great article. I love how you talk about university or college as exposing children to more ideas and not a guarantee for a job. I also love how you tell us parents to give our children ownership of their education. This is so important and it does start from day one. The older they get the more we can trust them to own their education.
    I was homeschooled my entire education (including college). The best thing my parents did was leave me to do my work and call for help when I got stuck. It taught me to be self-motivated and self-disciplined. This is what I want to instill in my children.
    Thank you for giving me food for thought on this matter.

  8. I would imagine this is the hardest part of parenting, letting go. Because all these issues truly are because parents are afraid to let go, to let them sink or swim on their own. I really pray that I’ll give my daughter the tools to stand on her own, even fail and pick herself back up.

  9. Thanks for having the courage to tell parents that sometimes, they need to back off! Your point about parents complaining to a professor about grades brings to my mind a sobering but parallel situation. You probably heard about the father of the rapist in the Stanford rape case attempting to make excuses to the judge for his son’s crime, claiming he was just a kid who made a couple mistakes. The principle of personal responsibility is the same in both instances, and I bet the kind of parents who interfere too much in college are setting themselves up for a lot of trouble down the road (although I’m certainly not suggesting that helicopter parenting causes rapes!)

  10. I’m so shocked by that mom! It’s crazy to think that she was unwilling for him to learn on his own and two think that her writing the paper (and confessing to it) would help his grade. I’m stunned!

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