Panel Paper: The Effect of Parents on College Student Engagement: An Evaluation of a Parent Intervention

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Wrigley (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Denise Deutschlander, University of Virginia

While first-generation, low-income, and Latino students have made significant gains in college going, these students still complete college at lower rates than their more advantaged peers (Bailey & Dynarski 2011; Bowen et al. 2009). Although differences in academic preparation and financial supports partly explain sociodemographic disparities, these factors do not account for gaps in completion (Carnevale & Strohl 2010; Bowen et al. 2009). As a result, researchers have begun to investigate how student experiences in college relate to inequality. While engagement with faculty/staff positively effects persistence, grades, and completion (Angrist et al. 2009; MacDonald et al. 2009), less-advantaged students are less likely to engage with faculty/staff (MacDonald et al. 2009; Schwebel et al. 2012), often because they are uncomfortable asking for help or unaware that they are entitled to help (Collier & Morgan 2008; Jack 2016).

This project seeks to increase the amount of contact less-advantaged students have with faculty and staff by enlisting the help of parents. Little higher education research has considered parental influence, although parents are active in their student’s lives (NSSE 2007). Notably, parents are more attentive to education-related information (Daniel et al. 2009), and are more likely to use this information to make decisions than students themselves (Bettinger et al. 2012; Loeb & Valant 2014). To evaluate whether parents can effectively encourage their children to seek out college faculty/staff, I implement an RCT with a non-profit organization serving low-income, first-generation, and Latino students (N=600). Parents of college students in the treatment group received an introductory letter at the beginning of students' first semester in college and text-messages, in sets of three, sent bi-weekly throughout the academic year covering a range of student engagement strategies.

To investigate the preliminary effects of this intervention, participants completed a survey during their first semester of college, which explored the following research questions:

1) Can a parent intervention change parent-student conversations, student predispositions or behavior?

2) How are parent-students discussions related to other important student outcomes in college?

Preliminary survey analyses show that parent-student conversations were significantly different between treatment and control groups. Moreover, the least-advantaged students (those whose parents have less than an associate’s degree and Latino students) exhibited a more pronounced response to treatment. These families were more likely to discuss academic services, advisors, preparation for class, assignments, and relationships with professors outside of class. Treatment students were also more likely to report that their parents were emotionally supportive, supported their college goals, and supported their college choice. Parent discussions and support also predicted important student outcomes, such as belonging, whether students found interactions with faculty positive, and their intent to persist into the following semester.

The results of this study have important implications for higher education policy and can inform institutions’ efforts to improve college completion. More specifically, the project provides evidence that low-cost, light touch, and scalable college programs can strategically enlist parents to improve the outcomes of less-advantaged students. As such, it makes an important contribution to understanding social inequality and policies that might reduce it.

Full Paper: