A New Look at the Role of Parents in College Transition

If the college admissions scandalhas taught us anything, it’s that some parents will do anything to ensure their children are able to secure coveted spots in the most elite universities in the country. Note, that it’s some parents; absolutely not all, given that the particular parents involved in the “Varsity Blues” case represent a tiny minority of individuals. Indeed, as members of the uber-wealthy, they undoubtedly are not even representative of the top .0001%. However, the case raises the question of which parents, when given the means, would seek admission for their children through the so-called back door.

What’s notable about this case, in addition to shining light on the potential for corruption in college admissions, is that once the children of the rich and famous become students at these elite schools, their chances for further life success increase astronomically. Just look at the overwhelmingly high proportion of Rhodes Scholarshipsgiven to American students who attend Ivy League and other elite universities. Thus, making sure your children gain entry to one of these schools helps to set them up for life, further contributing to the inequities in society based on wealth and class.

It would be inappropriate to comment on the motivation of the particular individuals involved in the Varsity Blues case without knowing anything about their psychological make-up. There seems to be an implicit assumption in the reporting of these cases, as well as the opinions expressed in the media , that they are an extreme form of helicopter parents. From a psychological point of view, their behavior fits into the literature on how young adults manage the transition to college. Most of this literature tends to focus on the qualities of the college students themselves, and how their own psychological qualities make this transition difficult or easy. Developmentally, incoming college students are at a fascinating crossroads as they manage what is arguably the most significant change in their lives up to that point, at least in terms of their educational trajectories. It is becoming increasingly recognized that parenting style needs to be considered as one of the key factors affecting this process.


According to a new study by University of Missouri Columbia’s Nathaniel Greene and colleagues (2019), the challenges faced by students as they transition from high school to college are particularly acute in the current generation of millennials. Much has been written about the psychological characteristics of millennials, focusing on their supposedly high levels of narcissism due, again supposedly, to the vast extent of helicopter parenting they have received. Despite evidence to the contrary , this view persists. Indeed, as Greene et al. observe, millennials are in some ways better off than previous generations because the “close and communicative relationships ” they have with their parents allow them to gain practical as well as emotional support. Moreover, as they note, “parental support is one factor that helps students adjusting to college” (p. 1). The question then becomes whether, as claimed, the millennials reporting more difficulty in this process are getting over-parented, or perhaps not being parented enough.

The University of Missouri-led researchers applied a novel approach to understanding the role of parenting in helping students adapt to college. The framework provided by self-determination theory (SDT) is one frequently used in applied and motivational psychology to predict job satisfaction and performance in school. SDT proposes that people are motivated by the three basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Satisfaction of these needs fosters psychological well-being, quality of life, sense of integrity, and ability to grow, according to SDT. Autonomy refers to sense that you are in control of your actions, competence to your sense of mastery over your environment , and relatedness to the desire you have to feel connected to others. When all three of these needs are sufficiently fulfilled, people will feel a strong sense of intrinsic motivation, and this is what fosters psychological well-being. From SDT's perspective, students who are intrinsically motivated have the best chance of adjusting to college, as supported by research showing that these self-driven individuals have higher grades and a smoother transition as they make their way through college’s various demands.

Be vigilant about safety. Babyproof your home thoroughly, and never leave a child under 5 in the tub alone. Make sure car seats are installed correctly, and insist that your child wear a helmet when riding his bike or scooter.

Unfortunately, as Greene et al. suggest, millennial students are too often being sent the message that what really counts as a product of a college education is the potential for higher income. Also unfortunately, these students are being saddled with the largest debts of any prior generation given the soaring costs of college tuition. They may have no choice but to seek a major that will guarantee their ability to pay off those loans and then move on to earn an income that will allow them to live debt-free.

In SDT terms, parents who promote satisfaction of their children’s needs for relatedness can provide crucial support during the transition to college: “Students who feel closer and more connected with their parents during the first year of college feel more like adults when graduating college” (p. 2). However, there’s a twist in that this happy outcome occurs only for parents who support their children’s needs for autonomy. Helicopter parenting, when parents become over-involved and controlling, is detrimental because it deprives children of that need for autonomy. This nuance is often not recognized when the media focus on over-involved parenting. The scales tip from helpful to disruptive when parents who are supportive of their children try to exert undue control over their lives.

Normal rules apply. Discipline the child who stutters just as you do your other children and just as you would if he didn’t stutter.

Another new concept that Greene and his colleagues introduce to the equation involves how being a first-generation student impacts the transition to college. Now making up almost a fifth of entering college students, the children of parents who did not attend college face an array of challenges in their adjustment to campus life. In the first place, they may need to hold a job while attending college, limiting their study time and freedom to pursue extracurricular opportunities. The economic burdens on them and their families may lead them to view college as a stepping stone to higher paying jobs after they graduate. In college, they may also be less likely to ask their professors for help, and they may not be able to get the same kind of practical advice from their parents as is true for the “continuing-generation” students. Additionally, because they are on a trajectory that will put them ahead of their parents in terms of social class, they may feel “family achievement guilt .”

To test the SDT model as applied to the transition to college, the University of Missouri researchers tested a sample of 355 incoming college students at a large public university. The majority were female (59%), and white (72%), but one-fifth were first-generation. Participants completed a family achievement guilt questionnaire with items such as “I feel uncomfortable if I am more successful than my parents." The SDT measure asked them to rate their needs in relationship to their parents in the areas of autonomy (“I feel free to be who I am”), competence (“I feel very capable and effective”), and relatedness (“I feel a lot of closeness and intimacy”). Direct measures of helicopter parenting asked them to rate agreement with items such as “My parent tries to control everything I do” vs. items measuring autonomy such as “My parent likes me to make my own decisions.” Participants also rated the extent to which they worry about college in the areas of academic performance, social adequacy, and finances.

Let them read what they want. Kids who read for pleasure excel academically—not only in language arts but, as recent research from the Institute of Education, in London, found, in math as well. So while you wish he would pick up Dickens, don't make him feel bad about a graphic novel. "A 'junky' series can be good if it gets kids hooked on the habit of reading," says Mary Leonhardt, a former high school English teacher and the author of Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don't.

Although this was a correlational study, the authors adopted a statistical method that allowed them to test predictive relationships. This analysis allowed them to conclude that, of all the possible predictors of worries about college, autonomy was the only one to emerge as significant. As Greene et al. concluded, “millennials’ need to be themselves in the relationships with their parents may be the most important basic need in combating worries about college” (p. 8). Regarding the role of achievement guilt, the findings also supported SDT by showing that students higher in autonomy as well as competence motivation also had lower levels of achievement guilt, both for first- and continuing-generation students. As the authors stated, “need satisfaction in the parental relationship predicted better student outcomes during the transition to college, even for first-generation students who are more susceptible to achievement guilt and maladjustment to college” (p. 8).

Returning now to those parents who try to game the admissions system, it appears that what they've done wrong, in addition to allegedly breaking the law, is to create a psychological environment in which their children have little room to impact their own outcomes. Whether or not the children are aware of what their parents were doing behind the scenes, their future ability to succeed in college cannot help but be negatively affected, as suggested by the Greene et al. study. Children need to succeed or fail on their own terms, based on their own qualifications.

Remember that discipline is not punishment. Enforcing limits is really about teaching kids how to behave in the world and helping them to become competent, caring, and in control.

On the flip side, this study highlights the positive impact that relationships with parents can have to children as they enter their college years. Good communication plus respect for the ability of children to make their own decisions seems to be the winning formula for promoting healthy college adjustment, and a solid basis for fulfillment in the decades to follow.