Invasion of the Helicopter Parents

The new crop of MBAs is often accompanied by moms and dads eager to get involved in their kids' education. Is this hovering healthy?

Marsh Pattie, student affairs director at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, knew that something had changed when the mother of a first-year Darden student came to the Charlottesville campus this fall and found her son an apartment and set up his utilities before he even arrived in town.

"That was a first for me," said Pattie, who has been at Darden since 2003. "I have never before had a parent handle all of the logistical arrangements for their children's move to Charlottesville in preparation for business school."

School administrators are used to parents who see their kids safely off to the school bus for grade school, watch over them in high school, and maybe help them get settled on campus when they leave home as college freshmen. But the actively involved parent was pretty much an unknown phenomenon in B-school—until now.

Sitting In

Students from the generation born in or after 1982—the "millennials"—are slowly making their way onto the campuses of business schools, with the first wave hitting MBA programs now (see, 2/15/07, "Millennials on a Mission"). They're being closely trailed by their parents, some of whom fall into the category of "helicopter parents"—so called because they tend to hover around their adult children, keeping in constant touch and sometimes prying into their personal and professional lives.

Their hovering tendencies also manifest themselves in frequent phone calls and e-mails to administrators about their offspring's application and academic progress at school, school officials say. In the most extreme cases, they have tried to intervene on behalf of their child during the application process, attend job fairs on their son's or daughter's behalf, or sit in on campus interviews. And they sometimes call Pattie to ask him to check up on their kid if he or she hasn't called home in a day or two.

"It's hard to believe, but the parents are actually part of the process now, too," says Rachel Edgington, the Graduate Management Admission Council's director of market research and analysis. "A couple of years ago when we started talking about the millennials coming to business school, the schools said, 'I can't believe that parents would actually come to the school or come along for an interview.' But they are."

Moving Service

Overbearing parents can sometimes clash with campus officials and professors, who want students to become independent leaders and decision makers, notes Bruce DelMonico, director of admissions at Yale University's School of Management. "There are certainly different competing interests that are involved here," he adds.

The change isn't lost on students either. Darden first-year student Kristin Strauss was taken aback when she saw a large number of parents moving their children onto campus during her first day of school. Strauss, 25, moved in by herself but found she was in the minority. She watched parents park their cars on campus, unload suitcases, and help their children—most of who were in their mid to late 20s—decorate their rooms.

"I was kind of surprised when I moved that so many parents had driven down and were shopping at Target with the MBA students to get them set up in their apartments," Strauss says.

Maybe she shouldn't have been. Younger MBA students rely heavily on their parents when it comes to making important life decisions. About 65% of students under the age of 24 say they are likely to use their friends and family as resources when deciding to pursue an MBA, according to the 2006 registrant survey conducted by the GMAC.

Close Connections

The rising cost of tuition at business schools likely plays a role in the millennial generation's continued dependence on their parents as they move on to graduate school, says William Strauss, a generational historian and the author of the book Millennials Go to College. "But it isn't just economics. It's also reflective of the fact that the millennials get along with their parents better than any generation in the history of polling, going back to the 1960s," Strauss says.

This group of students consults with their parents on whether they should attend business school, and again when deciding which school to attend, Strauss says. Many live at home before attending graduate school and communicate with their parents via cell phone or e-mail several times a day.

"It just shows the closeness of the families. They get along with their parents, and that's the good news," he says. "The bad news is that people who deal with them have to deal with their parents, too."

Joint Venture

Indeed, admissions and student affairs officers at MBA programs say they have seen an uptick in parents' presence on campus in the past year or two. They're showing up at group information sessions, attending receptions for admitted students, and requesting to sit in on classes, says Linda Baldwin, director of admissions at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. Grandparents and even in-laws are popping up at the admissions office, too, she says.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. "The young people are including them in the process and making it a collective, joint type of activity," Baldwin says. "That can be very invigorating for someone who's older, particularly the grandparents."

Yale's DelMonico says he has noticed more parents calling the admissions office on behalf of their children and asking for catalogs. One mother recently came to campus and spent the entire afternoon in the visitor center knitting a sweater while waiting for her daughter to return from interviews and a campus tour. "She got pretty well along in that sweater while her daughter was here," he notes.

Parental Investment

At Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, 75 students attended this past weekend's welcome event for admitted and confirmed students. Ten parents also came, said Brian Lohr, Mendoza's director of admissions.

These students, who average about four years of work experience, wouldn't have considered bringing a parent a decade ago, says Lohr, who has overseen the event since 1997. But now, parents are even calling the school to set up appointments with financial-aid officers.

"Oftentimes, I think the parents are supplementing the experience by paying for tuition and housing, so it's an investment for them as well," Lohr says. "They're very involved."

Mortified Offspring

Students themselves aren't afraid to use the term "helicopter parents" even of their own parents. John Steck, 26, a first-year Darden student, says people in his age group are used to having their parents involved in their lives. Most don't mind the extra attention and lean on their parents for important advice, he says. "I know from my own experience my mother has always been a helicopter parent. Nothing changes there," Steck adds. "She still enjoys doing whatever she can to kind of be a part of my life at this point in time."

Helicopter parents are usually up front with their children about their involvement, but some choose to work behind the scenes, admission officers say.

Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, recalls two recent cases where parents called her office after learning their children didn't get into Tuck and proceeded to complain about the school's decision. "I would say I think that the applicants would be really mortified if they know how their parents had handled it, and in both cases the parents didn't want the applicants to know they had contacted us," Clarke says.

New Trends

In some instances, parents are pushing their children to try to get them access to events that are normally closed to them—causing administrators to draw boundaries. One recently admitted Yale student informed the admissions office that his parents wanted to accompany him to a welcome dinner for new students that will be held later this month, DelMonico says. The student was told his parents couldn't accompany him to the event, but the school made special arrangements for the parents to have dinner on campus—separately.

A mother of a Boston University School of Management student asked the admissions office last year if she could attend an open house for admitted students in place of her child, says Chris Storer, BU's associate director of admissions. The school refused to let her attend the event, he says. "It's really designed for students to connect with each other and other admitted candidates," Storer adds. "It sort of defeats the purpose if we were to allow random parents to come."

School officials have begun talking about how this new generation of students—and their parents—will affect business schools in the coming years. They expect different trends in behavior, expectations, and even learning styles. "It's something we even discuss in faculty meetings now, how [the new generation's] arrival is going to affect graduate business education," says Ken White, Darden's vice-president for communications & marketing.

MBA officials agree that it's hard for anyone to predict how large a role these parents will play in the future. Most plan to sit back and watch how the situation develops, dealing with each parent for now on a case-by-case basis. One thing's for certain: The helicopters are beginning to take up some of the airspace at these schools.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE