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When college orientation is a family affair

University of Houston incoming students tour the campus

University of Houston incoming students tour the campus last month as part of an orientation. Credit: AP / Elizabeth Conley

Jennifer Neill returned from college orientation with her firstborn, astonished by the vanity, lack of common sense and immaturity — and it wasn’t the freshmen that made her cringe. It was their parents.

At home in suburban Pittsburgh, she shared her thoughts on Facebook in a group for parents of teens and young adults.

“I’m seriously worried about this generation’s ability to survive, let alone thrive with parents like some of these!” Neill posted above a photo of a dazed-looking Lucy Ricardo.

Other parents responded with horror stories about ridiculous questions put to college administrators at freshman orientation. Who keeps track of when they come home at night? Who makes sure they go to class? You’ll call us if they don’t, right?

One mom wanted to know whether the cafeteria staff would remind her son not to eat foods he’s allergic to.

“I was thinking, when can I get out of here?” Neill said in an interview. “The questions were killing me and not something we should be worrying about at this stage with our kids!”

Helicopter parents are good for plenty of eye-rolling, but what surprised me most was that parents were attending freshman summer orientation with their kids. Isn’t this a time for letting go?

What I came to learn is that while colleges and universities once held parents at arm’s length, the majority now embrace them by scheduling parallel orientation sessions for each generation. They show up at the same time, and administrators present the information each set of newbies needs to know.

Just a decade ago, a Vermont campus I know of used “bouncers” to keep parents away from their kids’ class selection sessions. Today, the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, at the University of South Carolina, says 88 percent of four-year institutions include orientation activities for family members.

It would appear that colleges have bowed to the desires of over-involved parents to be enmeshed just a while longer in their offspring’s adulthood.

“Over my career in higher education, since 2003, I’ve seen an increased attention to this on campuses,” said Dallin Young, assistant director for research at the National Resource Center. “Early on, the attitude was, let them be adults already. There’s been a shift in the mentality.”

Partly that’s a result of parents pushing to make it so. They’re going to show up anyway, administrators figured, so why not turn them into partners? Parents might notice students struggling before staff do. The Wall Street Journal noted this week a doubling of university mental health counselors in residence in the past two years.

Another factor is the soaring cost of college, which makes parents more custodial about their investments. And more students who might have skipped college in the past because of learning disabilities or because their parents didn’t earn college degrees, now believe a degree is essential to making a good living.

But including parents at orientation begs the question: When does the letting go begin? I confess, I sent my rising freshman to orientation by herself. She drove more than three hours to get there. I was nervous, but September will be the real deal, and I thought it would be better for her to take a small step now.

Or perhaps I just didn’t want to be the parent asking the clueless question in front of the others. Will the university staff make sure she cleans her room?

I can see the bouncer walking my way now.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.