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At community colleges, parents want orientation, too

At past college freshman summer orientations, Rowan College at Burlington County administrators noticed that a surprising group of people kept showing up: parents.

At past college freshman summer orientations, Rowan College at Burlington County administrators noticed that a surprising group of people kept showing up: parents.

They were able to learn the ins and outs of the school, but it was supposed to be student orientation.

"That was good in terms of the student having the support network right there with them," said Cathy Briggs, the Burlington County community college's dean of student success. "What it cut into was the students' ability to … make connections with other students, because they were sitting with their parents."

The lesson was clear: Families want orientation, too.

Last year, the college began to test separate gatherings, largely presenting the same information to parents as to students. About three dozen people attended this year's first event, held last week on the school's main Mount Laurel campus.

Reaching out to parents is important, Briggs said, because family often forms a first line of support for students. Enlisting family can help a student get to the finish line.

"Now their support system is well-informed," Briggs said, citing credit hours and study time as examples: Without the orientation, some parents may not understand how much time students need to dedicate to their courses.

"Without that information, the parent doesn't have the context to know what the expectations are," she said.

Such programs can particularly benefit first-generation college students, who are particularly at risk of leaving college and make up a sizable portion of community college enrollment. Parents who did not attend college may not understand the student's experience and challenges.

"You do have tons of students who don't continue, drop out during or at the end of their first year, and colleges are trying all sorts of things to try to improve continuation rates," said Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. "This could be another aspect of that — it's probably an underutilized avenue."

That's why Brian Ivers Sr. attended RCBC's parent event for his son, Brian Jr.

"I wanted to know what we could do to help Junior," said the elder Ivers, who did not attend college.

Ivers Sr. particularly wanted to learn more about how students can transfer to four-year colleges and how to help his son through that process.

Now armed with that information, Ivers said he plans to work with his son when the time comes.

"We're here," he said. "We'll be there for him all the way through it."

One benefit of separate parent and student events, several college administrators said, is that parents often have a different focus from students. Parents, for example, generally have more questions about financial aid and campus safety than students do.

"Parents typically have a lot more questions than the students do," said James N. Canonica, the dean of students at Camden County College, which is now in its fourth year offering parent orientation programs to complement its student sessions.

Camden County College, like RCBC and other schools, largely presents the same types of information to parents and students, Canonica said.

At Rowan College at Gloucester County, "we kind of educate the parent right along with the student," said Audreen Pittman, the community college's Educational Opportunity Fund director.

The school doesn't currently offer a parent-specific program, Pittman said, but she hopes to develop one this school year. Now, students who approach the EOF student support program often arrive with parents in tow.

Because Educational Opportunity Fund programs target first-generation students, Pittman said, parental education becomes an important way to help students.

"The more educated a parent is, the better our processes go," she said. "We want to educate the parents, because that helps us greatly."