Grant to help parents guide their college students

PULLMAN, Wash. – Parenting doesn’t end when children head off to college, though there’s not much advice for what parents should do. With a five-year, nearly $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at Washington State University will look at how parents can best support their college-age offspring. 

Laura Hill
Laura Hill

“We want parents to be confident that they still have a really important role to play in students’ lives, even when they go off to college,” said Laura Hill, head of WSU’s Department of Human Development and lead on the grant. “And we want them to know the best ways to provide the support students need.”

For two years, WSU has provided parents a handbook called “Letting Go and Staying Connected with Your WSU Student.” The handbook is not only part of WSU’s grant initiative dedicated to student success but also part of a study to determine how effective such a handbook could be.

Hill developed the handbook with WSU colleagues, Brittany Rhoades Cooper and Matt Bumpus, and two University of Washington faculty members; the same team is working on the new grant.

Starting in summer 2017, the study will follow incoming students and their parents through four years of college. Three groups will be studied: families who don’t receive the handbook, families who do receive the handbook and families who receive the handbook and also receive reminders about what they learned from it. 

Researchers will follow the next class, starting in 2018, for three years.

The group receiving the reminders will get communications like text messages or emails, Hill said – advising parents to check in with their students before homecoming, for example.

“Students at this age rely on their parents in many ways, even though that’s not always evident,” she said. “Students trust parents more than any other source of information in a variety of areas.”

Binge drinking, for instance, was an area of the original pilot study that was affected by parents, even though there is very little in the handbook about talking to children about drinking.

“Just talking with students before they leave for college, and reminding them of their own values, can have a large impact,” Hill said. “Reminding them of why they’re going to college and what they need to do to succeed had a noticeable impact on student drinking behavior.”

Hill, who is also a faculty member in WSU’s interdisciplinary prevention science doctoral program, hopes the handbook will provide an evidence-based template for use in universities and community colleges around the country.

“This would be a positive, inexpensive and potentially powerful intervention to help students transition to adulthood,” she said. “And by the time they graduate, they’ll be able to live independently as healthy, productive adults.”